By Will Gibbons
Few college football coaches can claim both a legendary record and a unique choice of headwear in the way the late University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant can. The question circulating the legal community of late, however, revolves around the extent to which the University can assert that uniqueness in the form of trademark protection for the houndstooth design emblazoned on Bryant’s signature fedora hat, as well as the right of an administrative court not to conform to the ruling of a District Court.
The case of the Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama and Paul W. Bryant, Jr. v. Houndstooth Mafia Enterprises, LLC, et al. is currently working its way through the federal courts. Before filing suit, the University and Bryant had opposed the Houndstooth Mafia’s trademark registration, which included a logo with a plentiful amount of houndstooth. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”), however, found that the opposition lacked a showing of distinctiveness in the pattern, likelihood of confusion with the University’s marks, or that the Houndstooth Mafia’s use of the word “mafia” is disparaging.
Following the ruling, the plaintiffs filed suit for trademark infringement and unfair competition, eventually settling. The condition of settling, however, was that the Houndstooth Mafia would agree to a consent judgment vacating the TTAB’s decision.
In a twist, the TTAB refused to vacate its previous ruling. The TTAB reasoned that it was not subject to the statute authorizing courts to order a vacated judgment and that in the alternative, the Lanham Act did not grant the District Court authority to order a vacated judgment. The TTAB summed up its stance, stating the final consent “…points to no legal error in [its] prior decision…” and no “…aspect of the public interest…would be furthered by vacatur….”
In February 2016, after the University had requested a new order, the District Court issued an explicit order to the TTAB to vacate its ruling and allow the Houndstooth Mafia marks to be registered with the University owning the marks. In April 2016, the marks were registered. In its Order, the District Court stated “[a]dministrative agencies are not free to ignore a court’s mandates….”
In response, the TTAB has appealed the issue of whether it can refuse to comply with a court order. Because of the carryover effect the issue could have on other administrative courts, attorneys will be watching with the same focus Coach Bryant employed while patrolling the sidelines years ago.