LEGAL AUTHORITY AND ITS WEIGHT . . . PROBLEM
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First year law students learn to identify the weight of legal authorities through simple heuristics. Law presents itself as a hierarchical system, with a constitution on top, statutes immediately below, executive regulations and orders following, and judicial opinions at the bottom, but not necessarily last. Every law student learns that the top court of every state and the federal government claims the final say on the validity of other sources of law within its governing jurisdiction.

Judicial opinions, in fact, take on a hierarchy separate from other sources of law in weight of authority analyses. The judiciary in every state and the federal government is broken down into three tiers. Trial courts act as the first-level fact-finding body. Although trial courts also determine questions of law, questions of law are always viewed anew (de novo) by appellate courts. Intermediate appellate courts are broken down into separate districts or circuits, each respectively handling appeals from trial courts within the same district or circuit. And, every state and the federal government have one Court that is supreme on all issues of law within its governing jurisdiction.

When conducting legal research, law students and practitioners rely on their heuristics to identify mandatory (binding) authority and persuasive authority. When judicial opinions are the primary source of law at issue in the legal research, each court within the hierarchy described above is bound by the prior decisions of the courts above it within the same jurisdiction.

Stare Decisis is the principle that justifies the binding nature of a prior court’s decision on a lower court within its jurisdiction. That is, Stare Decisis (as triggered by “precedent”) gives weight to the authoritative dictates of each court within the hierarchy.  Notably, Stare Decisis is only a legal principle. It is not in the United States Constitution or the Texas Constitution. And, Stare Decisis is not externally binding in any meaningful sense; that is, there is no mechanism by another branch of government to force a trial court or appellate court to adhere to the principle of Stare Decises in a given case.

The Weight Problem

Herein lies the weight problem: The judiciary is the only branch of government that determines its own weight of authority. Trial courts and appellate courts may decide for any reason not to follow precedent. Usually a reason is provided. A judge or justices may try to draw a factual distinction between a prior case and the case under review. Or, a court may just decide that it was flat wrong in the past and may provide its reasons in support of a new course.

The judiciary’s ability to determine the weight of its own authority creates a number of problems. First, as most new practitioners learn straight out of law school, legal research and writing efforts are frustrated by inconsistent or non application of Stare Decisis, especially when the court provides insufficient or suspect reason(s) for its deviation from precedent. Second, and related, inconsistent application of precedent invites cynicism about the judiciary and its function, leaving both practitioners and the general population with the impression that judicial decisions are but arbitrary whims of individual judges.

Third, deviations from precedent obscure political accountability. The separation of powers doctrine is infused in the structure of every state and the federal constitution. Checks and balances—the notion that each branch may act as a check on another branch against abuses of power—are central to the separation of powers doctrine. A Legislature cannot simply change its mind about a law and decide to unilaterally repeal it; the Executive must approve, unless the Legislature obtains a supermajority to override an executive veto—even then all legislation is subject to judicial review. Likewise, the Executive cannot act with impunity when it issues an executive order; the executive’s order is subject to review by the Judiciary. Without any other branch checking the judiciary when it comes to deviation from precedent, the judiciary may effectively act with impunity.

Constitutional Support for Inherent Judicial Powers

 The question arises: What justifies our understanding of “the weight of authority”? Well, Constitutional support does exist for the judiciary to determine the weight of its own authority. Inherent in our constitutional structure lies the separation of powers principle. Each branch enjoys its autonomy and may create its own institutional norms and rules to articulate the proper exercise of its power, so long as those norms and rules do not conflict with the Constitution or, in the case of the Executive, a controlling statute.

The Constitution also, arguably, grants inherent powers to the Judiciary, such as the power of judicial review—i.e., the power to invalidate legislation, regulations, or executive orders (a power that enables the judiciary to determine the weight to attribute to legislative and executive authority). The U.S. Constitution is silent as to the power of judicial review, although Alexander Hamilton touched on the Judiciary’s “duty . . . to declare all acts contrary to the manifest tenor of the constitution void.”(Federalist 78).

The question whether the Judiciary actually does possess such inherent powers is similar to the question surrounding inherent powers in the Executive. Hamilton argued that, unlike the Legislature, the Executive possessed inherent powers. As evidence, he noted the difference between the vesting clauses of Articles I and II in the Constitution. Article I states: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.” Article II, on the other hand, states: “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the Untied States of America.” The Executive, unlike the Legislature, is not limited to the powers “herein granted.” So, Hamilton argued that the President enjoyed powers not delineated in Article II. See Alexander Hamilton, First Letter of Pacificus (June 29, 1793), repreinted in Williams H. Goldsmith, The Growth of Presidential Power: A Documented History 398, 401 (1974).

The U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the debate over inherent Executive powers in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579 (1952). President Harry Truman issued an executive order for the federal government to seize steel mills to keep them operational when the United Steelworkers Union threatened a nationwide strike. President Truman feared that the strike would stall steel production, thereby frustrating the Korean War effort and endangering national security. The Court held that President Truman acted in excess of the Executive’s constitutional power. Despite its conclusion, seven different opinions emerged, each with a different stance on the question whether the Executive enjoyed inherent presidential power. Even though each opinion expressed certain limitations, all but one acknowledged the existence of inherent executive power.

Although the Judiciary has articulated its own inherent powers, constitutional support does exist for such inherent powers in the judiciary, based on the separation of powers doctrine, and the Federalist Papers. It is also worth noting that Article III’s vesting clause mirrors Article II: “The judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one supreme Court. . . .” The Judiciary, in other words, is not limited like the Legislature to the powers “herein granted.”

What About Checks and Balances?

 Some constitutional support may exist to support inherent judicial power to determine the weight of its own authority, but the separation of powers doctrine rests not merely on the notion of the autonomy of the Legislature, Executive, and Judiciary, but also on the notion that each Branch can act as an external check against abuse of power by any other Branch. Moreover, the Framers envisioned internal controls or checks on each Branch to minimize the risk of power abuse. James Madison best expressed the necessity of internal and external controls: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government . . . you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” (Federalist 51).

External Controls

External controls do exist to somewhat check abuses of power by the judiciary and minimize deviations from the principle of Stare Decisis. These external checks include the impeachment process, the prerogative of the Executive to enforce judicial decrees, the legislative power to diminish the structure of the judiciary, and the constitutional amendment process.

Impeachment

Article III provides that “judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their offices during good behaviour. . . .” Most jurists refer to federal judiciary tenure as “life tenure,” but the tenure is explicitly “during good behaviour.” See also Federalist 78. Unlike Article II, which provides a removal process for the President, Vice President and officers of the Executive Branch, Article III does not expressly mention an impeachment process. Nevertheless, impeachment is the process used to remove judges. John Pickering was the first federal judge to be impeached, convicted, and removed from office. His removal was controversial, since the charge centered on alcohol abuse and alleged incapacitation, but the Jefferson administration saw Pickering’s removal as a test run for a bigger fish—Justice Samuel Chase. Chase earned Jefferson’s ire when, among other things, Chase openly criticized Jefferson and his party for repealing the Judiciary Act of 1801. The Senate did not convict Chase, and the whole impeachment has been historically viewed as an attempted political coup.  

Impeachment, or the threat of impeachment, may act as a check against deviations from the principle of Stare Decisis. But, one must wonder whether such deviations would constitute “bad behavior,” or a high crime or misdemeanor. As mentioned above, judges generally make an attempt to distinguish precedent, even if stretching the bounds of analogy and disanalogy. And, overuse of the impeachment process may work to undermine the legitimacy of the other branches; certainly, too many impeachments would undermine the judiciary’s legitimacy and diminish public confidence in the judicial system. So, impeachment may not be a very effective check against deviations from precedent.

In states with elected judicial officials, the external check here is popular elections. Of course, too much popular turnover in the judiciary does not bode well for the impartial branch of government.

Executive Non-Enforcement

 Hamilton famously stated that the Judiciary was the “least dangerous branch.” (Federalist 78). He argued that the Judiciary could not exercise any power to enforce its own orders. The Executive could, if it so desired, decide not to enforce a judicial opinion. Of course, there have been no real examples—other than the possibly apocryphal account of Andrew Jackson declaring, “Chief Justice Marshal has rendered his opinion; now let him enforce it,” in response to the Court’s ruling in Worcester v. Georgia—of executive non-enforcement. Moreover, failure to enforce judicial decrees would also work to undermine the Rule of Law, the legitimacy of the Executive and Judiciary, and, again, diminish the general population’s confidence in the judicial system. 

 Legislative Diminution of Judiciary

 Hamilton also supported his “least dangerous branch” claim by pointing to the fact that the legislature controlled the purse; whereas, the judiciary could not exercise influence over legislative expenditures. The legislature, in this vein, could severely defund the Judiciary to check abuses by it. Additionally, the Legislature, with Executive approval, could diminish the size of the judiciary by, for example, reducing the number of courts, judges, or justices. Of course, historically, threats to reduce or even increase the number of Justices on the Supreme Court have been issued as a means by which to advance the sitting Executive’s agenda. For example, President John Adams signed the Judiciary Act of 1801, which reduced the number of Justices from six to five, to minimize the opportunity for Thomas Jefferson (then President-elect) to appoint a Supreme Court Justice. And, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt threatened to pack the Court with twelve Justices in order to set his New Deal in motion without judicial interference. Still, the power of the legislature, with Executive approval, to control judicial funding and the makeup of the Judiciary is a slow path to checking immediate or even serial deviations from the principle of Stare Decisis.

 Constitutional Amendment

A constitutional Amendment would end the weight of authority problem altogether. If a supermajority decided, it could include a strict command in the Constitution for the judiciary to (1) adhere to the principle of Stare Decisis, (2) avoid deviation from precedent, unless a clear and obvious distinction in the facts and the law of the prior case exists and is articulated. A separate provision could also create an independent body to evaluate suspicious or questionable deviations from precedent, with a mandate for issuing reprimands to individual judges and instituting a process for removal for bad behavior, which might be defined to include repeat and arbitrary deviations from the principle of Stare Decisis. However, Constitutional Amendments are rare, and require a supermajority. The threat of a constitutional Amendment is not itself effective in acting as a check against deviations from the principle of Stare Decisis.

On the whole, external controls are in place to check potential abuses of power by the Judiciary. These controls may not be the most robust to check deviations from the principle of Stare Decisis, but they do exist and are available.

Internal Controls

 Internal controls also exist to minimize the risk of arbitrary and serial deviations from the principle of Stare Decisis. These internal controls include the hierarchical structure of courts, the intellectual rigor required to preform as a judge, and institutional loyalty.

Hierarchical Structure of Courts

 The hierarchical structure of courts acts as an internal control against arbitrary deviations from Stare Decisis. If a trial court decides not to follow precedent, an intermediate court of appeals will have an opportunity to review the trial courts decision, including its reasoning—this assumes that the parties consider an appeal worthwhile in terms of cost, time, and effort. Should an intermediate appellate court deviate from precedent, the Supreme Court (or other highest court in the jurisdiction) will have an opportunity to consider whether the issue deserves attention. This whole process provides a feedback mechanism that allows the Judiciary to check itself. And, since judicial opinions rest for support on reason and rationale, and considering that judicial opinions are often published for public view, some transparency over the process exists, which encourages judges to adhere to precedent.

Intellectual Rigor and Qualification

The nomination process might act as an external check against judicial abuse of power, if we assume that the nomination process involves consideration of each judicial nominee’s intellectual acumen and dedication to the legitimacy of the judiciary. Alexander Hamilton appeared to believe that the very nature of the job in the judiciary ensured that only intellectually qualified persons would serve. He wrote:

It has been frequently remarked, with great propriety, that a voluminous code of laws is one of the inconveniences necessarily connected with the advantages of a free government. To avoid an arbitrary discretion in the courts, it is indispensible that they should be bound down by strict rules and precedents, which serve to define and point out their duty in every particular case that comes before them; and it will readily be conceived from the variety of controversies which grow out of the folly and wickedness of mankind, that the records of those precedents must unavoidably swell to a very considerable bulk, and must demand long and laborious study to acquire a competent a competent knowledge of them. Hence it is, that there can be but few men in the society, who will have sufficient skill in the laws to qualify them for the stations of judges. And making the proper deductions for the ordinary depravity of human nature, the number must be still smaller of those who unite the requisite integrity with the requisite knowledge.

(Federalist 78).

Hamilton did not overstate the importance of rigorous study to the practice of law, with its reliance on voluminous cases. The very nature of the job, in short, may act as an effective check against arbitrary deviations from precedent.

Institutional Loyalty

Among the internal controls identified by James Madison, institutional loyalty is one less often emphasized but that should not be understated. Madison wrote:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consist in giving to those who administer each department, the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of the attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interests of the [person], must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.

(Federalist 51). When a judge’s personal motives align with the interest of his or her home institution (the Judiciary), Madison urged that the official (judge) would act so as to advance the best interest of the institution (the Judiciary). See also David Fontana and Aziz Z. Huq, Institutional Loyalties in Constitutional Law, 85 U. Chi. L. Rev. 1, 12-13 (2018).

Judges concerned with their own, personal legacies, reputations, or livelihoods generally, possess a strong motivation to see to the legitimacy of the Judiciary, their home institution. So long as institutional loyalty is present, arbitrary deviations from precedent may be minimized.

Conclusion

Although judges may at times deviate from the principle of Stare Decisis, giving rise to the problem the Judiciary chooses the weight of its own authority, the problem, though not fully resolved, is mitigated by constitutional checks in place. 

Daniel Correa
Badge of Servitude: The Case of Crystal Mason and Felony Disenfranchisement Laws--Part 1
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Crystal Mason voted in the 2016 presidential election without fully appreciating that she could be sentenced to time in  prison for voting while on probation. Had she known it was illegal, she would not have casted a vote. In her own words: “You think I would jeopardize my freedom? You honestly think I would ever want to leave my babies again? That was the hardest thing in my life to deal with. Who would – as a mother, as a provider – leave their kids over voting?”

Under state law, a person who is “finally convicted” of a felony is not eligible to register to vote. But, once a person convicted of a felony is either pardoned or successfully completes his or her punishment, which includes any incarceration term, parole, supervision, or period of probation, that person regains her eligibility to register to vote. See Tex. Elec. Code § 11.002.

Crystal’s case raises serious concerns about the integrity of electoral and democratic processes. Texas officials have made it a priority to crackdown on voter fraud. Some argue that Crystal’s case falls under the umbrella of voter fraud. Maybe her case does fall under that umbrella, but that umbrella covers two views of voter fraud.

On one side, voter fraud covers individual abuses of the electoral process by people who are ineligible to vote. On the other side, voter fraud covers abuses by the state in denying citizens the right to vote, such as when a state imposes onerous burdens on individuals to vote, or dilutes the value of individual votes through subterfuge. This latter form of fraud is not often discussed as “fraud” but as a violation of individual and constitutional rights. However, when the state by subterfuge employs its force to deny any citizen, or group of citizens, the right to vote, the state commits voter fraud by compromising the integrity of the electoral system to skew electoral outcomes.

This article argues that blanket felony disenfranchisement should not be constitutionally sanctioned by showing that felony disenfranchisement is explicitly constitutionally authorized. That is, the one place in the Constitution that explicitly authorizes felony disenfranchisement is also the one place no one would or should ever argue in support of felony disenfranchisement—the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This article aims to start a serious discussion about the practice of felony disenfranchisement with the hope that the discussion does not rely only or solely on appeals to authority, but on the social benefit and justification for the practice in the first place.

            Felony Disenfranchisement in the U.S. Constitution

At the outset it should be noted that the original U.S. Constitution is void of any language as to who gets to vote, how ballots are cast, and a host of other issues pertaining to electoral processes. Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment marked the first time the Constitution said anything about a “right to vote,” and even then it was not an unqualified right to vote—it was a right to vote if eligible. The Constitution and constitutional case law tell us what qualifications the states may not impose on persons to be eligible to vote. Race cannot be a disqualifying factor, nor gender, nor age starting at 18; Wealth insofar as payment of a poll tax cannot be a requirement to vote.

Felony disenfranchisement laws render a citizen ineligible to vote due to that citizens status as a felon. The question arises whether states should be allowed to make eligibility to vote dependent on whether a person obeys the criminal laws of the state, specifically those crimes the state labels “felonies.” There are theoretical justifications offered to support state felony disenfranchisement as a legitimate government purpose, namely breach of the social contract, and civic-republicanism/civic virtue. But the question raised here is whether the U.S. Constitution offers textual support for felony disenfranchisement.

Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment—The Felony- Disenfranchisement Exception

The United States Supreme Court has held that section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides textual support for state-enacted felony disenfranchisement laws. See Richardson v. Ramirez, 418 U.S. 24 (1974). The majority opinion engaged in an a-historical analysis to reach its conclusion, mostly looking to state constitutions existing at the time of the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification, and Union readmission policies imposed by Congress on southern states following the Civil War. Unfortunately for the majority, the history behind section 2 is not a good indicator of whether felony disenfranchisement is constitutionally permissible. 

Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment punished states by reducing the Congressional representation of any state that denied, for any reason other than participation in a crime, the right to vote to any male who was twenty-one and a United States Citizens. Congress sought by Section 2 to deter States from disenfranchising former slaves—as an aside, the Republican-run Congress also enacted this penalty to counter an anticipated increase in Democratic Party representation because former slaves would be counted as whole persons, rather than only three fifths of a person, for purposes of apportioning congressional representatives in each state; the Republicans banked on the notion that black men would be loyal to the party ensuring and protecting their rights. But Section 2’s “penalty” did not obtain its desired effect during Reconstruction, as violence and constant threats of violence against black voters effectively disenfranchised them without the need of any state to make a law actually denying black men the right to vote.

The Fifteenth Amendment marked the first time that the United States Constitution appeared to secure the right of anyone to vote: “The right of Citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”  Section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment vested Congress with authority to make laws to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment, providing the Federal Government a mandate to intervene in state-deprivations of the right of black citizens to vote. Congress enacted the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871 (aka “The Ku Klux Klan Act”), which prohibited the use of violence or other forms of intimidation intended to prevent black persons from voting; the 1871 Act made it a federal offense to engage in violence and other forms of intimidation against black voters. The Justice Department was created to lead the charge in enforcing the Civil Rights Acts and Enforcement Acts.

The Fifteenth Amendment clearly was designed to replace the impotent sanctions imposed by section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment with more robust federal oversight of state electoral practices. See e.g., Gabriel Jack Chin, Reconstruction, Felon Disenfranchisement, and the Right to Vote: Did the Fifteenth Amendment Repeal Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment? 92 Geo. L.J. 259 (2004); See United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1876) (holding   

The dissent in Ramirez argued that section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment did not limit the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause or due process clause to remedy electoral discrimination practices, including felony disenfranchisement:

The Court’s references to congressional enactments contemporaneous to the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment . . . are inapposite. They do not explain the purpose for the adoption of [section 2] of the Fourteenth Amendment. They merely indicate that disenfranchisement for participation in crime was not uncommon in the States at the time of the adoption of the Amendment. Hence, not surprisingly, that form of disenfranchisement was excepted from the application of the special penalty provision of [section 2]. But because Congress chose to exempt one form of electoral discrimination from the reduction-of-representation remedy provided by [section 2] does not necessarily imply congressional approval of this disenfranchisement. . . . There is no basis for concluding that Congress intended by [section 2] to freeze the meaning of other clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the conception of voting rights prevalent at the time of the adoption of the Amendment. In fact, one form of disenfranchisement—one-year durational residence requirements—specifically authorized by the Reconstruction Act, one of the contemporaneous enactments upon which the Court relies to show the intendment of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment, has already been declared unconstitutional by this Court. . . .

418 U.S. at 75-76 (Marshall, J. and Brennan, J. dissenting). The dissenting opinion ends with a powerful rebuke of the practice of “blanket disenfranchisement of ex-felons,” taking into consideration “the significance or the extent of its infringement upon the spirit of our system of government.” Id. at 85-86.

There are other problems with relying on section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment for textual support of blanket felony disenfranchisement.  Section 2 applies to the right of men to vote and the felony disenfranchisement exception to section 2’s punishment applies only to men. Women did not win the right to vote until 1920 when the states ratified the Nineteenth Amendment. The Court cannot, without great interpretive license, apply its textual analysis to authorize felony disenfranchisement of women. The Court would also be hard-pressed to backtrack and say that the word “men” or “man” in the Constitution applies to all people, including women; though the Court has argued this way in the past, because the Court explicitly used section 2 to justify state laws that denied women the right to vote. See Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162, 174-75 (1874).

Again, even were the Court to interpret “men” as including “women,” section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment also explicitly only applied to men who attained the age of twenty-one. Would this mean that section 2 does not allow states to enact felony disenfranchisement laws that apply to men and women who are under twenty one? Eighteen, nineteen, and twenty-year olds did not win the right to vote until the Twenty-Sixth Amendment was ratified in 1971.

With all of these logical, textual, and historical problems, section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment looks like a poor place to look for explicit Constitutional authority for states to enact felony disenfranchisement laws.

                        The Thirteenth Amendment Slavery Exception

 If the majority got it wrong in Ramirez, that leaves one place in the Constitution to explicitly authorize felony disenfranchisement—the Thirteenth Amendment. Though seemingly shocking or controversial, and contrary to popular belief, the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution did not abolish or outlaw slavery; it qualified slavery. Take a look at its language: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” U.S. Const. amend. XIII, § 1.

If the United States Constitution does not prohibit but in fact authorizes states to reduce to the class of slave or involuntary servant any person duly convicted of a crime, does this fact mean that states are authorized to disenfranchise felons?   What is slavery? It is a “situation in which one person has absolute power over the life, fortune, and liberty of another.” Black’s Law Dictionary 1422 (8th ed. 2004). A slave is one with whom the state may do what it pleases; a slave is outside of the political community; a slave belongs to the polity and submits to its will. The Thirteenth Amendment provides the most clear and express basis for felony disenfranchisement; felony disenfranchisement is not impliedly authorized by the Thirteenth Amendment; rather, the Thirteenth Amendment invests the states with absolute power over the life, fortune, and liberty of a person duly convicted of a crime. The franchise has long been the hallmark of self-governance, the right and ability of a person to choose her representatives and the laws that purport to govern her life. Without the ability to exercise the right to vote, she must submit to political outcomes chosen by others, whether those outcomes deprive her of property rights, increase her taxes, or alter other rights that she holds dear.

Interestingly, the Ramirez majority never considered that the participation in crime exception of section two of the Fourteenth Amendment was included by the Framers of that Amendment precisely because the Thirteenth Amendment allowed states to treat persons duly convicted of a crime as slaves.  Looking forward, one might ask why the Fifteenth Amendment qualifies one of its terms? No state may deny the right of a person to vote based on that person’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The Framers of the Fifteenth Amendment may have meant here that states could not deny the right of a person to vote because that person was formerly a slave; but the states could deny a person duly convicted of a crime the right to vote based purely on that person’s present condition of servitude.

Every person should feel unconformable about applying the Thirteenth Amendment to justify blanket felony disenfranchisement, especially since felony disenfranchisement laws disproportionally impact black Americans and other racial minority groups. See e.g., Erin Kelly, Racism & Felony Disenfranchisement: An Intertwined History, https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/publications/Disenfranchisement_History.pdf; Gabriel J. Chin, Race, The War on Drugs, and the Collateral Consequences of Criminal Convictions, 6 J. Gender Race & Just. 253 (2002). 

Presumably, no one would want to be on the side of arguing that the very Amendment that rid our nation of one of the most inhumane practices known to any civilized society can be used to exclude from political participation the ancestors of the victims of that most inhuman practice, or anyone else for that matter. But there is nowhere else to look, other than state traditions and state constitutions and statutes (under the rubric of the Tenth Amendment) if section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment does not authorize states to disenfranchise felons. The Tenth Amendment route requires an in-depth and lengthy discussion of theoretical justifications for felony disenfranchisement. This discussion will be the subject of the second part to this blog.

Crystal Mason voted and for that act alone she will be wrested away from her children, her family, her friends, her neighbors, her community. She will continue to be governed completely by the will and whims of others. She will continue to wear the badge of servitude etched into the fabric of her civil rights by the state initiated status—felon. Did she commit voter fraud? Or is she the victim of state-initiated voter fraud. 

Daniel Correa
James Creedon Selected to the 2018 Texas Rising Stars List
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Managing Attorney James Creedon has again been selected for the Texas Rising Stars list under the category of intellectual property litigation. Each year, no more than 2.5 percent of the lawyers in Texas are selected by the research team at Super Lawyers to receive this honor.

Super Lawyers, a Thomson Reuters business, is a rating service of outstanding lawyers from more than 70 practice areas who have attained a high degree of peer recognition and professional achievement. The annual selections are made using a patented multiphase process that includes a statewide survey of lawyers, an independent research evaluation of candidates and peer reviews by practice area. The result is a credible, comprehensive and diverse listing of exceptional attorneys.

James Creedon
What the Essence of "Discovery" Reveals About its Practice, Part 2

In my last blog, we posited from In re Kimberly-Clark Corp. that Discovery is the legal process in a lawsuit by which facts, documents, and other forms of information that relate to the litigation are disclosed. We found, however, that this definition alone did not fully capture the court’s description. The court described the nature of Discovery not merely in terms of process, but also purpose.  

            What is the purpose of Discovery?

The purpose of discovery may first be gleaned by the stated objective of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure: “The proper objective of rules of civil procedure is to obtain a just, fair, equitable, and impartial adjudication of rights of litigants under established principles of substantive law.” Tex. R. Civ. P. 1. We may glean from TRCP 1 that the objective of Discovery must be in line with the proper objective of rules of civil procedure generally. That is, Discovery cannot have as its purpose anything short of the general objective of civil procedure rules. But we cannot conclude, yet, that the purpose of discovery is exactly the same as the proper objective of civil procedure rules.

Texas Courts articulate the purposes of Discovery in line with but not exactly as the stated objective of civil procedure rules.

1.    “The ultimate purpose of discovery is to seek the truth, so that disputes may be decided by what the facts reveal, not by what facts are concealed.” In re Colonial Pipeline Co., 968 S.W.2d 938, 941 (Tex. 1998) (emphasis added).

2.    “Discovery should be used to augment and facilitate the trial process by narrowing as much as possible the actual issues in dispute.” In re Kimberly-Clark Corp., 228 S.W.3d 480, 490 (Tex. App.—Dallas, 2007 orig. proceeding) (emphasis added).

3.    “The purpose of the discovery rules is to encourage full discovery of the issues and facts before trial so that parties can make realistic assessments of their respective positions in order to facilitate settlements. . . .” Lopez v. La. Madeleine of Texas, Inc., 200 S.W.3d 854, 861 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2006, no pet.) (emphasis added) (citing Gee v. Liberty Mut. Fire Ins. Co., 765 S.W.2d 394, 396 (Tex. 1989)).

4.    “The rules of discovery were changed to prevent trials by ambush and to ensure that fairness would prevail.” Gutierrez v. Dallas Independent School Dist., 729 S.W.2d 691, 693 (Tex. 1987) (emphasis added).

Notably, if discovery’s primary purpose is to seek the truth, then the stated objective of civil procedure rules would mostly be met; that is, if discovery is a process by which litigants seek the truth, then discovery would facilitate a just and impartial resolution of rights of litigants.

However, there are countervailing civil procedure rules that thwart the truth-seeking function of discovery, like certain privileges, and rules limiting the scope of discovery. Though we value the search for truth, we also value protecting other rights and privileges in the process. We also value reducing the cost of civil processes so as not to unduly burden litigants, that is, to ensure cases are decided on their merits and not on the mere inability of a party to pay to defend itself; an unrestrained search for the truth through civil processes could prove unfair or inequitable. So, courts articulate the purpose of discovery not merely in terms of the search for truth, but also in terms of ensuring fairness.

The other stated purposes of discovery are really not purposes of discovery, but consequences of the stated purposes of discovery. As a truth-seeking process, discovery is the process through which all relevant facts come to light. If all relevant facts come to light, then the issues in dispute will narrow, and the parties will be able to make realistic assessments of their positions. Further, if discovery’s purpose is to ensure fairness in the search for truth, then as a consequence it would avoid trials by ambush.

Having uncovered the process-oriented nature of Discovery and unpacked its normative grounds, we may posit a legal definition of “Discovery”: Discovery is the legal process in a lawsuit by which facts, documents, and other forms of information that relate to the litigation are disclosed, the process of which aims to ensure fairness in the search for truth.

If we accept or agree that this legal definition accurately, albeit generally, describes the nature or essence of Discovery, then we can efficiently and effectively examine and describe, in a non-question-begging manner, the practice of Discovery in Texas.

Daniel Correa
Demand Letters: The Action Plan

One of the most stressful events for a business owner is receiving a demand letter from a lawyer. Often times, these letters contain strong language full of accusations about wrongdoing, combined with a specific statement of what the lawyer expects and when. In Texas, for example, a letter may refer to the Deceptive Trade Practices Act or to Chapter 38 attorney's fees — things most business owners thankfully are not familiar with — and may even state a specific dollar amount required to settle a dispute.

For any business receiving this kind of letter, there are clear steps to take from the first moment:

  1. Don't Panic. Many of these letters contain a laundry list of wrongdoing and include accusations of breach of contract, fraud, individual responsibility by the business owners, and even threats to shut down operations. Recognize that these allegations may be over-the-top and may not have any factual support whatsoever. Take a breath, understand that the actual conflict may be much less serious, and make a firm decision to approach the issue calmly and responsibly.
  2. Contact an Attorney. Many business owners are tempted to call the author of the letter, or to call the business or individual which hired the lawyer. Don't do this. Your first call should be to your counsel of choice, who will request a copy of the letter and any other materials you may have received. By making contact directly with the other side, you may inadvertently say or do something which could hurt your position down the road. Calling your own counsel doesn't mean you have to get involved in a knockdown litigation, or that you will have to spend thousands to even figure out where things stand. It is simply making a calculated business decision to ask an experienced professional about your risks and options.
  3. Take a Snapshot. Rather than rush to make changes to any operations or practices, wait until you receive specific guidance from your counsel of choice. As you go through that process, be certain to maintain a snapshot of where things were when you received the letter. Does it pertain to your website? Create a backup archive of the site as it stands. Is it related to a contract? Be certain to retain all documents related to that contract, including negotiation emails, notes, drafts, and final signed versions. Is it an accusation of monies owed? Save copies of bank statements, transactional records, cancelled checks, and any associated records. In short, you want to be able to look back later and understand exactly where everything stood when you received the letter and before you took any further steps or made any changes to your business.
  4. Notify Key People. There is no need to tell the world about the letter you received, but you may want to rope in those who will be directly involved. After contacting your attorney, consider speaking with your chief of operations, your internal financial officer, or any other individuals necessary to take the snapshot discussed above. You may be required to notify your insurance provider, but hold off on doing so until you speak with your attorney. Don't forget your spouse! Legal matters can be a source of significant stress which can affect your family — don't keep it to yourself.
  5. Don't Panic. Did we say this already? You can address this issue in a calculated, responsible way, which will allow you greater freedom in choosing options to resolve a dispute. Call your attorney, leave your cellphone number if they need to call you back, and go for a walk. Grab a coffee. Hit the gym (with your phone nearby). Let the initial wave of surprise pass, and then work with counsel to develop a plan.

Any unexpected letter from an attorney can disrupt your business, but following these basic steps can reduce stress and help you determine the best path forward.

To learn more please visit the Litigation page at Creedon PLLC.

James Creedon
What is Brand Clearance? A Primer.
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A company's brand, or identity in the marketplace, is often its most valuable asset. The brand is the touchstone the company builds itself around — a symbol of quality, a mark with a reputation for excellent service, and an important means of building goodwill and long-term loyalty. Founders spend countless hours brainstorming names or logos, and once a brand is settled on they often pour even more hours (and dollars) into securing all the necessities of a modern company: a business entity, a domain name, social media accounts, business cards, marketing materials, and perhaps the occasional fun item (branded socks, anyone?).

With all of this time, effort and money invested, founders often forget an important step: brand clearance. Brand clearance is nothing more than a focused, thorough, and directed search to confirm that a particular brand name or logo is worth the investment. Without it, many companies have found themselves a year into formation and having to change their brand — losing market recognition and momentum in the process.

Basic steps in brand clearance include the following:

  • Is the entity name available in the state you intend to form the company? Often a check on the Secretary of State website is sufficient, but beware that each state has its own rules on how unique a name must be, which words must or mustn't be in the name, and which entities are required for particular services.
  • Is the trademark available for registration? Federal trademark registration provides a number of significant benefits, including the ability to prevent others across the United States from using the mark for similar goods or services. A proper brand clearance looks at the federal trademark database as well as the individual databases of all states and territories. For some brands, an international search is also critical - think of video game developers in the United States who often seek game distribution in Southeast Asia. Understanding trademark availability can help a company secure a valuable asset in their growth, and can also provide a shield from early accusations of copying or infringement.
  • Is the domain name available? Consider not just identical domains, but similar ones as well. Consider also alternative top-level domains (TLDs) such as .co, .tech, and .tv. Look also for slight misspellings - will these deprive you of valuable traffic to your future site?
  • Are the social media accounts taken? Often a new brand is willing to make slight changes to its social media handle to get a descriptive word or phrase, but brand clearance is a means of thinking ahead. Who has a handle which is similar, and what will happen when potential or current customers accidentally arrive at that account?
  • Does your visual brand, such as a logo, create a risk of trademark or copyright infringement? An early tool for this is an image reverse search, which allows you to provide your logo or image and find other images on the internet which are visually similar.

Proper brand clearance can involve many other steps, including an internal review to be certain that intellectual property such as a logo actually belongs to the company and not to individual owners, employees or third-parties. But that, my friends, is for another blog post.

To learn more about brand clearance, please visit the Trademark or Transactional pages at Creedon PLLC.

James Creedon
What the Essence of “Discovery” Reveals About its Practice, Part 1
 Photo by  Samuel Zeller  on  Unsplash

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Philosopher: We have hitherto spoken of laws without considering anything of the nature and essence of a law; and now unless we define the word law, we can go no farther without ambiguity, and fallacy, which will be but loss of time; whereas, on the contrary, the Agreement upon our words will enlighten all we have to say hereafter.

Lawyer: I do not remember the definition of law in any Statute.
— Thomas Hobbes

Claims about the essence or nature of certain concepts inevitably threaten to bog one down in what seems like a mere verbal dispute. What is the essence or nature of law? What is the essence or nature of justice? On the surface, these questions do not appear to reduce to a right or wrong answer, making the questions appear trivial or non-substantive—law or justice by any other name would function just the same.

Conceptual questions tell us much about social practices. When John Austin posited that law is a command by a sovereign backed by a sanction, he understood this definition to be a description of a social practice. Likewise, when Saint Thomas Aquinas and, in a more elusive manner, Lon Fuller posited that whatever law is it must satisfy certain moral principles, they were describing what they considered socially acceptable practices. Even with Hobbes’ quote above, the Lawyer’s response to the Philosopher implies a social practice of lawmaking that reduces to statutes.

There is a risk, however, in confusing the practice with the concept for all purposes. That is, social practices tend to change, sometimes gradually, sometimes swiftly. If a certain practice changes, does the concept remain the same? What, in other words, is the fixed structure of the concept such that it can inform our understanding of social practices, and not only the other way around? If we can ascertain or agree to a fixed structure of the concept itself, then the concept will aid our understanding of contingent social practices (as the Philosopher argues in the Hobbes’ quote above).

Analytical debates abound in trying to articulate the essence or nature of “Law,” “Justice,” and even “Democracy” and “Rule of Law”—the latter two of which appear to raise an issue of disambiguating the concepts. We take these concepts seriously because the stakes may be high if we get them wrong, and we wish to get the concept right to instantiate the best possible example of these concepts through our social practices.  

I submit that getting “Discovery” conceptually right is equally important. Fortunately, unlike law or justicediscovery for our purposes does not have a life independent of litigation. Thus, our inquiry will be less esoteric than inquiries into the nature of law or justice

What is “Discovery”?

I’m not going on a limb to suggest that most practitioners do not consider what the essence or nature of “Discovery” is. Like the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, most, if not all, practitioners view and describe discovery through the lens of its practice. The Texas Rules of Civil Procedure set forth a definition of “Written Discovery”: “Written Discovery means requests for disclosure, requests for production and inspection of documents and tangible things, requests for entry onto property, interrogatories, and requests for admission.” Tex. R. Civ. P. 192.7. Notably, this definition summarizes the “Forms of Discovery.” See Tex. R. Civ. P. 192.1. Surely, Discovery must have meaning independent of its tools.

It is tempting to point to the “Scope of Discovery” as revealing Discovery’s conceptual essence or nature, but the scope of discovery tells us only how far practitioners may wield discovery tools, i.e., the “Forms of Discovery.” See Tex. R. Civ. P. 192.3. Undoubtedly, the proper use and reach of discovery tools reveals something of Discovery’s essence or nature, but Discovery must have some meaning independent of how far its tools may reach.

Black’s Law Dictionary provides a few useful definitions for “Discovery”:

  1. The act or process of finding or learning something that was previously unknown.
  2. Compulsory disclosure, at a party’s request, of information that relates to the litigation.
  3. The facts or documents disclosed.
  4. The pretrial phase of a lawsuit during which depositions, interrogatories, and other forms of discovery are conducted.

Black’s Law Dictionary 498 (8th ed. 2004). The first definition in this list goes to the general understanding, both lay and legal, of Discovery. The next three definitions pertain to the legal understanding of Discovery, and each such definition speaks to a process of compulsion and revelation.

At least one court in Texas has articulated its understanding of the nature of Discovery: “The nature and purpose of the discovery process is the administration of justice by allowing the parties to obtain the fullest knowledge of the issues and facts prior to trial.” In re Kimberly-Clark Corp., 228 S.W.3d 480, 490 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2007, orig. proceeding) (emphasis added). The court describes Discovery as a process-oriented legal concept. Looking back to the last three definitions of Discovery in Black’s Law Dictionary, you will see that the court’s definition tracks the understanding of Discovery in terms of compulsion and revelation. The administration of justice, after all, means “the state’s application of the sanction of force to the rule of right.” See Black’s Law Dictionary 47 (8th ed. 2004).

We can posit from In re Kimberly-Clark Corp., and from the "Forms of Discovery" and the "Scope of Discovery," that Discovery is the legal process in a lawsuit by which facts, documents, and other forms of information that relate to the litigation are disclosed. This definition may strike some as obvious; less obvious, perhaps, is the value of not only fully articulating such a definition, but also in employing analytical reason to uncover Discovery's meaning. We are one step closer to understanding the nature or essence of discovery, which will dramatically aid and improve our discovery practice. 

But, this definition alone does not fully capture the In re Kimberly-Clark Corp.  court’s description. The court described the nature of Discovery not merely in terms of process, but also purpose. Indeed, the “administration of justice,” with its focus on “rule of right,” contains a normative component that we must unpack to fully understand the nature of Discovery.

Normative inquiries demand exacting attention to detail. To make the best attempt at getting the conclusion right, or just reaching the best conclusion possible, the discussion pertaining to Discovery’s normative grounds must be the subject of another blog. 

Daniel Correa
Harte v. City of Lone Star, Texas, et al.—A Case Concerning Due Process, Representative Government, and Local Government Code § 22.008(b)
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I recently had the privilege of representing City Council Member Ryan Harte in his battle against the Lone Star City Council and the City of Lone Star, Texas, to retain his seat as an elected councilmember. The City Council had declared Mr. Harte automatically disqualified from holding the position of Alderman pursuant to a newly enacted local government code provision, which provided that a member of a local governing body “is automatically disqualified from holding the member’s office and the office is considered vacant” if the member changes his or her place of residence outside of the municipality.  Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code § 22.008(b).

At the heart of the controversy lay questions concerning process due under the newly enacted local government code provision and the effect of this new provision on democratic processes. These questions remain open. Harte’s matter was resolved by an agreed judgment permanently enjoining the City of Lone Star, Texas, from enforcing the City Council’s declaration that he was automatically disqualified from holding his office. A close look at Local Government Code § 22.008(b) in the context of Harte’s case reveals uncertainty regarding future application of the automatic disqualification provision as it pertains to office holders' due process rights and preservation of representative government. 

“Harte Removed From Council Due To Residency Issues”

On September 21, 2017, the Lone Star City Council voted Ryan Harte off the City Council, asserting as its ground Local Government Code Section 22.008(b). The Mayor met with Harte the week prior to the vote to inform Harte that he was automatically disqualified from serving as a city councilmember because, according to the Mayor, Harte did not own property in the county.

During the September 21 hearing concerning Harte’s residency, the Mayor provided the following testimony:

I wanted to add something to what Ryan said, a little clarification.  When I became aware that this law, this ruling, had become law, I looked at public records and trying to determine where one lives or resides…property ownership is but one aspect.  Your place of residence is where you lay your head, where your furniture is, where your clothing is, where your wife and child or husband reside.  That’s part of the equation.  Via public record, Mr. Harte owns no property in Lone Star, that’s true, via public record.  Mike and Ryan Harte purchased property in [*****], Texas October 16, 2016.  Ryan then had the property transferred to his name on June 7, 2017. . .  That’s what some of the conclusions were based on.  I’m advised that that’s where his vehicles are.  That’s where he returns to when he comes home from work. That’s where his utilities are.

Some members of the public had an opportunity to weigh in on the disqualification hearing. Kenny Simpson, a local citizen and voter, testified as follows:

My name is Kenny Simpson.  Mayor and city council, I’d like you to know.  I don’t think we get a great turnout in elections around here but, I can say this much…I’m not going to speak and address the Local Government Code.  I don’t have as much intelligence as this gentleman must have on what the laws are pertaining to the government code.  But I do know that Ryan Harte came to me; expressed his willingness to serve on the city council; explained to me his goals and opinions on what he was going to do on the council.  I took the time to come up here and vote. My wife took the time to come up here and vote and we would hate to see that vote totally wasted. Uh, I’m just asking you to consider that aspect of why he’s here. He’s here to represent us.

Remaining City Council members asked Harte questions pertaining to his residency during the disqualification hearing. At all times, Harte maintained that he resided in Lone Star, Texas. At the end of the hearing, the remaining City Council members declared Harte automatically disqualified from holding the position of Alderman due to residence requirements, and that his seat was vacated. A few days later, the Daingerfield Bee published an article, with a headline that read, “Harte removed from council due to residency issues.”

Harte v. City of Lone Star, Texas, et al.

Harte filed suit in Morris County, Texas, and sought a declaration that the city officials exceeded the scope of their lawful authority and a permanent injunction, enjoining the City and individual officials from enforcing the City Council’s declaration. Harte took the position that Local Government Code Section 22.008(b) could not be applied retroactively. Section 22.008(b) became effective on September 1, 2017. The residency issues of which the remaining City Council members complained arose sometime around April of 2017. The automatic disqualification provision, according to Harte, could only apply prospectively to persons who move their place of residency after September 1, 2017. Harte also complained that Section 22.008(b) could not be applied to an official elected before the code’s effective date because such an application would unconstitutionally divest him of his right and duty to represent his constituents and his constituents’ rights to be represented in the city council by a representative of their choosing.

Additionally, Harte took the position that the City Council’s action violated his due process rights. The City alleged that Section 22.008(b) was self-executing, in that Harte was automatically disqualified the moment he designated a homestead outside of the City of Lone Star, Texas (it is not clear how this could be possible since the homestead designation took place before the effective date of Section 22.008(b)). According to the City, the September 21, 2017 council meeting was not even necessary to declare Harte automatically disqualified. Harte maintained that the statute was not self-executing and that he was entitled to a full adversarial proceeding in a court.

Harte also maintained that the September 21, 2017 city council meeting was not an impartial adjudication of his right to retain his seat. The Mayor presiding over the meeting, acting as judge, also provided testimony against Harte in the proceeding. Harte complained that the hearing violated his due process rights by creating a constitutionally intolerable appearance of partiality.

The trial court granted Harte a temporary injunction against the City, allowing him to continue serving his constituents and the City of Lone Star during pendency of the suit. The court also denied the City’s plea to the jurisdiction. After the City filed a notice of appeal on the court’s plea to the jurisdiction denial, the parties entered into an agreed judgment, permanently enjoining the City and its officials from enforcing the September 21, 2017 declaration against Ryan Harte.

Future Applications of Section 22.008(b)—Preserving Due Process Rights and Representative Government

Section 22.008(b) undoubtedly serves to preserve representative government. The provision ensures that local elected officials live under the same laws as their constituents; that is, that local officials share in the burdens and benefits they grant or impose on everyone living within the municipality. Sharing in the same burdens and benefits guarantees a confluence of interests and goals between citizen and representative.

But Section 22.008(b) lacks an enforcement provision, the lack of which threatens to undermine representative government. Harte’s case provides a prime example. At his temporary injunction hearing, Harte testified that he more often than not acted as a contrarian or dissenting voice in the City Council. Harte believed that his vocal dissent motivated the Mayor and other City Council members to find a way to get rid of him. Taking his testimony as true, if the City Council rather than a court could enforce Section 22.008(b), then elected officials could use the provision as a means to oust political rivals or enemies, depriving constituents of a dissenting voice or “voice of reason.”

This threat manifested itself in Harte’s case. The City relied heavily, if not solely, on Harte’s homestead designation as dispositive on the residency issue. However, Texas Courts have consistently held that a homestead designation is not conclusive on the question of one’s intended residency. See e.g., In re Peacock, 421 S.W.3d 913, 918 (Tex. App.—Tyler 2014, no pet.); McDuffee v. Miller, 327 S.W.3d 808, 821-22 (Tex. App.—Beaumont 2010, no pet.) (holding a designated homestead outside of the relevant district is not conclusive); see also State v. Wilson, 490 S.W.3d 610, 621-22 (Tex. App.—Houston 2016, (holding legally insufficient tax records relied on by the State to prove the defendant’s residency). The Texas Supreme Court has held, in fact, that “residence” is an elastic term that is “extremely difficult to define.” See Mills v. Bartlett, 377 S.W.2d 636, 637 (Tex. 1964).

The risk of political reprisal is great when considering a local city council could latch onto a single criteria as the baseline to determine residency, placing the cost of a full adversarial hearing solely on the ousted official, who would have to seek vindication in a court proceeding, in which he or she would also carry the burden of proof. Since many local government positions are unpaid, like Alderpersons, local officials may feel emboldened to oust political enemies on very little residency evidence or information, knowing that the ousted official has minimal to zero financial incentive to incur the cost of challenging the ouster. 

So, what process is due under Section 22.008(b)? This question is up for grabs moving forward. A full adversarial hearing seems necessary. Section 22.008(b) should at most fall under the enforcement provision of Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code § 66.01-002, the quo warranto action provision, but must at least require a judicial proceeding.  A local government entity should initiate a judicial action pursuant to these provisions to ensure the full breadth of procedural rights to the targeted official and to promote the purpose of Section 22.008(b)—to preserve representative government.

Daniel Correa
“I’ll See Your Anti-SLAPP Motion and Raise Your Burden of Proof”—Doubling Down on Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code Chapter 27

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Legal practitioners in Texas continue to watch the scope of the Texas Citizens Participation Act extend beyond what they could have imagined. Texas enacted Anti-SLAPP legislation to curb litigants’ efforts to employ the judicial system as a means to silence or chill another’s First Amendment rights. The Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA) provides pretrial procedural checks against litigation designed to chill a party’s right to free speech, association, or right to petition government. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 27.001-011. The Act allows a party to file a motion to dismiss the case, with an award of attorney fees and costs to the party if successful on the motion. 

Courts construing Chapter 27 have applied its reach to both public and private communications, and beyond the obvious defamation claim to breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, negligence, gross negligence, malicious prosecution, false imprisonment, and other claims. See e.g., ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. v. Coleman, 512 S.W.3d 895 (Tex. 2017); Murphy USA, Inc. v. Rose, 2016 WL 5800263 (Tex. App.—Tyler Oct. 5, 2016, no pet.); Kinney v. BCG Attorney Search, Inc., 2014 WL 1432012 (Tex. App.—Austin Apr. 11, 2014, pet. denied). Definitional constraints within Chapter 27 yield to the command that “[t]his chapter shall be construed liberally to effectuate its purpose and intent fully.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.011(b).

One provision within Chapter 27 remains largely untapped, and will undoubtedly further broaden Chapter 27’s reach. The Act applies to a “legal action” that is based on, relates to, or is in response to a party’s exercise of one of the enumerated First Amendment Rights. The Act defines “legal action” as “a lawsuit, cause of action, petition, complaint, cross-claim, or counterclaim or any other judicial pleading or filing that requests legal or equitable relief.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.001(6).  

So the question is raised: what other judicial pleadings or filings, other than a petition, cross-claim, or counter-claim, fall within Chapter 27’s reach? The answer is in the definition: any filing or pleading that seeks legal or equitable relief and that is based on, relates to, or is in response to the party’s exercise of one of the enumerated First Amendment rights. Taking this definition seriously and without reservation could potentially wreak havoc in any specific case.

Consider the different types of filings in which legal or equitable relief may be sought:

  • Does Chapter 27 apply to a motion for sanctions under Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 13 or Chapter 10 of the Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code? Maybe. After all, a Rule 13 and Chapter 10 motion for sanctions must relate to or be in response to something filed by the other party in the judicial proceeding, which implicates the initial filing party’s right to petition government. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.001(4)(A)(i) ("'Exercise of the right to petition' means any of the following: a communication in or pertaining to a judicial proceeding.”). If the party filing for sanctions seeks an award of attorney fees, that would be a request for legal or equitable relief, bringing the motion for sanctions within Chapter 27’s reach.
  • Does Chapter 27 apply to a motion to dismiss under Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 91a? Maybe. A Rule 91a Motion to Dismiss is a judicial filing. The 91a Motion to Dismiss must be in response to the opposing party’s cause(s) of action alleged in a pleading or complaint. 91a mandatorily awards attorney fees to the prevailing party. And, filing a pleading or complaint clearly falls within the filing party’s right to petition government. (Note* Since 91a awards attorney fees to the prevailing party, an Anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss may not provide enough leverage to employ in response to a 91a motion, unless the party opposing the 91a motion wishes to have the option for an automatic interlocutory appeal.).
  • Does Chapter 27 apply to a motion for summary judgment. No. A summary judgment hearing is considered a trial. So, even though a summary judgment is a judicial filing, and even if the motion for summary judgment explicitly seeks legal or equitable relief, Chapter 27 does not reach trials. Summary judgment motions themselves act as trial briefing with attendant trial evidence. The motions are necessary predicates to the summary trial.

Chapter 27 by its plain language appears to reach most court filings seeking some form of legal or equitable relief, since in most, if not all, instances a filing seeking legal or equitable relief within the judicial proceeding will be based on, relate to, or be in response to the other party’s exercise of his, her, or its right to petition. Testing the metes and bounds of what constitutes a "legal action" for purposes of Chapter 27 is necessary to ensure that Anti-SLAPP motions do not take over judicial proceedings. The first place one might start to test the metes and bounds of the "legal action" definition would be a Chapter 27 motion to dismiss itself.  

Wouldn’t an Anti-SLAPP Motion to Dismiss itself constitute a judicial filing that seeks legal or equitable relief (an award of attorney fees) and that is in response to the non-movant’s exercise of his, her, or its right to petition government? Asked another way, could a party permissibly file, under Chapter 27, a motion to dismiss the other party’s Anti-SLAPP Motion to Dismiss?

Or do we go too far in asking the latter question? After all, Chapter 27 creates its own safeguard against motions to dismiss which are “frivolous or solely intended to delay” by allowing the court to award attorney fees and court costs to the responding party. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.009(b). One might argue that the inclusion of this safeguard indicates that the legislature did not intend for Chapter 27 to reach a motion filed under the same Chapter.

But nothing in Chapter 27 exempts Chapter 27 motions from the chapter’s reach. And, the stated purpose of the Texas Citizens Participation Act “is to encourage and safeguard the constitutional rights of persons to petition, speak freely, associate freely, and otherwise participate in government to the maximum extent permitted by law and, at the same time, protect the rights of a person to file meritorious lawsuits for demonstrable injury.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.002. Notice that the statute does not seek to safeguard only “Plaintiff’s rights” or only “Defendant’s rights” or only “Movant’s rights” or "Responding Party’s rights,” but seeks to safeguard the rights of persons, regardless of what side of the “v.” he, she, or it lands on, and regardless of whether he, she, or it is the movant or respondent.

On the other hand, if a responding party as a defensive measure could use Chapter 27, the counter-Anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss would, arguably, effectively alter the burden of proof. A party filing a motion to dismiss under Chapter 27 bears the burden to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the “legal action” is based on, relates to, or is in response to the party’s exercise of one of the enumerated First Amendment rights.  Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.005(b). If this burden is met, then the responding party must establish “by clear and specific evidence a prima facie case for each essential element of the claim in question.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.005(c). The court must deny the movant's motion to dismiss if the respondent provides such clear and specific evidence. 

Consider, though, that by successfully providing clear and specific evidence to show a prima facie case of the claim, the respondant might argue that the movant could not supply clear and specific evidence showing a prima facie case for the relief sought in the initial motion to dismiss. And, if the respondent filed a counter-anti-SLAPP motion, the respondant might also argue that it was Plaintiff's burden to provide clear and specific evidence of a prima facie case for the relief sought in the initial motion to dismiss, so long as the respondant demonstrates by a preponderance of the evidence that the initial motion to dismiss was based on, related to, or was in response to the respondent's exercise of the right to petition government.

Notice, however, that a counter-anti-SLAPP motion would essentially alter the burden of proof in Chapter 27. The initial movant need only demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that the legal action filed by the respondant is based on, related to, or is in response to the movant's exercise of one of the enumerated First Amendment rights. The movant does not bear the burden to demonstrate by clear and specific evidence that he, she, or it is entitled to the relief sought in the motion to dismiss--as an aside, Chapter 27 does place a clear and specific evidence burned of proof on a movant when the movant intends to rely on an affirmative defense to the underlying claims. 

What courts will do with the “legal action” language remains to be seen. Practitioners should consider tapping into this largely untapped area. Whenever an opposing party files a document with the court in which legal or equitable relief is sought against your client, consider employing Chapter 27.

Daniel Correa
First Trademark Application of 2018 Gets the Year Off to a Strange Start
  HAIL KITTY

HAIL KITTY

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It is official: the first trademark application of 2018 is serial number 87739622 for "the image of a cat's face and shoulders with the word 'HAIL' in uppercase lettering at the bottom of the mark" claiming "animal advocacy, t shirts, stickers, entertainment services." Let's unpack this one a bit, and see if we can figure out what lessons this application may teach us for use in the coming year.

Beginning with a bit of background, this application was filed by an individual in Seattle, Washington, and there is no attorney of record listed. Although the mark is listed for individual ownership, the applicant is also the registered agent for Hail Kitty, LLC in Washington. The company filings also provide for alternate names of Hail the Kitty, LLC, or Hail the Meiji Kitty, LLC. And who is the Governor (manager or managing-member) of the LLC? Meiji Kitty herself — the very kitty shown in the mark. Meiji Kitty is no slouch, providing online reviews while also running her LLC. She is not, however, a trademark attorney (from what we can tell), and so perhaps did not identify some of the issues in this filing.

First, this application is a 1(a) application, meaning the applicant declares that the mark has been used in commerce prior to filing. With a claimed first use date of October 20, 2012, the applicant puts a stake in the ground and asserts that this particular image has been used to designate the source of the claimed goods or services since that date. While this may be true, a priority date from over five years ago can open up the mark to later challenge. For example, if a challenger to the mark could demonstrate that this particular image hadn't been consistently used to identify the source of the claimed goods or services during the intervening years, there could be a basis to allege fraud on the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO). Given that the applicant signs a declaration acknowledging that "willful false statements and the like are punishable by fine or imprisonment, or both, under 18 U.S.C. § 1001,” and that § 1001 specifically provides for imprisonment of not more than 5 years, one should be particularly careful prior to making such a declaration. Failing to properly designate a first use in commerce date can create legal headaches and result in unnecessary expense and lost time. The takeaway? Take extra care to be certain that the mark has been used in commerce beginning on the claimed date and with no significant breaks in use prior to the application.

Second, this application is filed under International Class 35, which generally covers "advertising; business management; business administration; office functions." Importantly, class 35 is a class specifically for services, and cannot be used to claim protection for physical goods. Further, even for services, one must be careful which class to use, as particular services fall under other classes. As you recall, applicant is claiming "animal advocacy, t shirts, stickers, entertainment services." Animal advocacy? While this is a service, it often is found under class 36 as a part of charitable services. T shirts are physical goods, and cannot be claimed under class 35 — rather, they fall under class 25 for clothing. Stickers are also a physical good, generally falling under class 16. And entertainment services, properly a service, will generally be found under class 41. These numbers matter, as filing in an improper class may result in the USPTO issuing an office action, which identifies an issue with the application requiring resolution prior to registration. If an application is filed in a fundamentally incorrect class, the mark will not proceed to registration, the filing fees will not be refunded, and the "place in line" in the process is lost. The takeaway? Applicants must understand and carefully select the proper class for a particular mark. One helpful tool for this is the online Trademark ID Manual, which allows the public to search for terms in the trademark database and provides guidance on which classes are appropriate.

Third, this application provides the following specimen (example of use):

 HAIL: the t-shirt

HAIL: the t-shirt

As trademarks serve to identify the source of a good or service, the question becomes whether this specimen supports the claimed good of "t shirts." Putting aside the matter of being filed in an improper class, the specimen itself is an issue, as it suggests that the mark is a design on the front of the shirt. Unfortunately for applicant, according to § 1202.03(a) of the Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure (TMEP), "matter that is purely ornamental or decorative does not function as a trademark." The mark specimen should demonstrate how the mark designates the source of the shirt itself, rather than being a design simply placed on the front of another provider's physical shirt. Thankfully, TMEP § 904.03(i)(B)(2) provides very clear guidance on what would suffice for a specimen, and could save applicant a likely office action. The takeaway? Take the time to clearly understand what type of specimen is required prior to filing. Not only will this increase the chances of getting a mark granted — it also educates the applicant on what ongoing use in commerce will be sufficient to maintain trademark protection once a federal registration is granted, avoiding the risks of the mark being declared abandoned.

Lastly, this application was filed as a TEAS Reduced Fee, which lowers the per-class government filing fee to $275 per class. If, however, the applicant used the Trademark ID Manual to select preapproved language for goods and services, she could have reduced this fee even further to $225 per class by filing as a TEAS Plus application. This not only saves money, but can speed up the processing time for the application by reducing office actions to modify particular wording in the application. The takeaway? The USPTO has mechanisms by which applicants can save money, speed up processing, and improve the chances of obtaining registration — but the applicant must seek out and use those tools.

The issues above could likely be avoided by engaging an experienced trademark attorney who deals with these issues regularly. Further, trademark applications don't stand alone, but rather are part of a larger business strategy. Retaining counsel with the knowledge and insight to assist with overall growth is a key step in building the foundation for long term success.

To learn more about the services offered by Creedon PLLC, please visit our Trademark and Transactional pages.

James CreedonTrademark
Sewell v. Zurich American Insurance Co.: On Contingent Fee Contract Remedies
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Suing former clients to recover a contingent fee is never ideal. But neither is working for free. Like any other contract for services, when an attorney enters into a contingent fee agreement with a client, the attorney expects she will be paid for her services if her client recovers.

What if the attorney, though, has worked on her client’s case for some time and the client terminates the attorney-client relationship before the client recovers? And, what if the client hires another attorney and the new attorney helps the client settle the case? Does the former attorney have a remedy against the client’s new counsel or the third-party with whom the former client settled? 

Suits to recover on contingent fee contracts often include the former client and the third-party (often the insurance carrier paying the settlement on behalf of the actual third-party) with whom the client settled. Most of the time, terminated counsel will send a letter or email to the third-party, informing the third-party that terminated counsel holds an assignment interest in the cause of action and/or in the former client’s recovery, if any. The letter or email often includes language suggesting that the third-party owes a duty to protect terminated counsel’s “assignment interest.” 

The Beaumont Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion which touches on the questions and issues raised above. In Effrem D. Sewell v. Zurich American Insurance Company, Case Number 09-16-00079-CV, the court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s summary judgment in favor of Zurich as to Sewell’s breach of contract and quantum meriut causes of action. Zurich insured a vehicle operated by an employee of Diakon Logistics. The employee was involved in a vehicular accident with a motorcycle operated by Joseph Guillory, II. Guillory hired Sewell as an attorney to represent him in pursuing claims against Diakon Logistics for injuries Guillory sustained as a result of the accident. The representation agreement between Sewell and Guillory contained a standard contingent fee agreement. Sewell immediately sent a letter to Zurich, advising Zurich that he represented Guillory in his claim against Diakon Logistics and informing Zurich that he had been assigned an undivided interest in Guillory’s claims and causes of action.

About eight months after the representation agreement was signed, Guillory terminated Sewell. Guillory secured new counsel. Seventeen months later, Guillory entered into a settlement agreement, acknowledged and approved by his new counsel. Zurich paid the agreed-to settlement value to Guillory and his new counsel.

Sewell brought suit against his former client (Guillory) and against Zurich for breach of contract and in quantum meruit. Sewell did not sue Diakon Logistics. Zurich filed a traditional motion for summary judgment, arguing that Zurich owed no duty to Sewell, that Zurich had no contractual relationship with Sewell, and that Sewell’s remedy, if any, would be an action against his former client. The trial court granted Zurich’s motion.

In its opinion affirming the trial court’s summary judgment in favor of Zurich, the Beaumont Court of Appeals reaffirmed the general rule that terminated counsel may not seek to recover his contingency fee against the opposing party or its insurer. See e.g., Dow Chemical Co. v. Benton, 357 S.W.2d 565, 568 (Tex. 1962) (reasoning that a “lawyer’s rights, based on the contingent fee contract, are wholly derivative from those of his client[]” and that an attorney working on a contingent fee “elects to litigate his interest simultaneously with his client’s interest [and] in his client’s name); Honeycutt v. Billingsley, 992 S.W.2d 570, 584 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1999, no pet.). The court noted an exception to the general rule—when the discharged attorney pleads and proves that his former client and the opposing party conspired to vitiate terminated counsel’s contractual rights. Sewell, however, did not plead or argue that Guillory conspired with Zurich to deprive Sewell of any rights under the contingent fee agreement.

The Sewell opinion should bring some clarity and consistency to contingent fee recovery practice. A discharged attorney hired on a contingent-fee basis can seek recovery of his fee against his former client in a breach of contract action or in quantum meruit—the Mandell remedies. See Mandell & Wright v. Thomas, 441 S.W.2d 841, 847 (Tex. 1969). If terminated counsel wishes to pursue his contingent fee against the opposing party or its insurance carrier, terminated counsel will need to plead and prove an exception to the general rule which limits terminated counsel to the Mandell remedies solely against his former client.

 

 

Daniel Correa
Have You Designated Your DMCA Agent? Now Is the Time.

Online service providers which permit third-party posting of material, such as websites hosting user video content or blogs allowing users to post comments, run the risk of storing materials on their systems which constitute copyright infringement. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA, provides "safe harbors" from allegations of infringement if these providers identify an agent to receive copyright complaints and also register that agent in the Copyright Office DMCA Designated Agent Directory.

Although the Copyright Office previously had a paper system by which providers could register, it is transitioning to a fully digital online system as of January 1, 2018. Importantly, the Copyright Office has made clear that "any service provider that has designated an agent with the Office prior to December 1, 2016, in order to maintain an active designation with the Office, must submit a new designation electronically using the online registration system by December 31, 2017. Any designation not made through the online registration system will expire and become invalid after December 31, 2017."

If your business permits third-party posting of content, you should take steps to designate your DMCA Designated Agent prior to the turn of the year. Keep in mind, however, that this is only part of the plans—you should take this time to review your website terms of use and privacy policies, confirm the Designated Agent information on your site itself, and make certain that all contact information is functional.

An experienced intellectual property attorney can provide an overall review of your website and identify necessary corrections, saving you time and extra work down the road. A 2018 resolution to address website deficiencies may be the best investment you make in the secure growth of your business.

James CreedonCopyright
James Creedon Speaks at Drake Law School on Legal Issues in Coworking

On August 25th, Creedon PLLC Managing Attorney James Creedon spoke at the Drake Law School event Tech Startups: Navigating the Legal Maze. Drawing on his years of experience working with new businesses, James focused on the legal complications that arise in coworking spaces, and offered lessons on how to counsel businesses making the leap from coworking spaces to standalone success. A copy of the presentation is available here.

 

James CreedonCreedon, Startups, CLE
Cuba Wins Big and Renews Havana Club Trademark

As American businesses continue to express interest in Cuban markets (see, for example, my previous article in Texas Lawyer), it is easy to forget that trademark disputes can go in both directions.  Just as U.S. companies are interested in intellectual property protection for their own brands as they expand into this opening market, Cuba is making its own moves to push back.  The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s recent decision regarding Havana Club is illustrative, and speaks to the challenges that will inevitably arise as relations thaw.

Companies seeking to expand into international markets, or concerned about the effects of international trademarks on domestic interests, could benefit from discussing these matters with qualified trademark counsel.  Available services can include trademark screening, portfolio monitoring for existing marks, and intellectual property inventories to determine the full-range of options for protecting these valuable assets.

— James Creedon

James CreedonCuba, Trademark
Starting a Veteran-Owned Business? Here Are Five Things to Remember

Leaving the military and starting your own business is a double leap of faith. The first jump, deciding to leave active duty, requires you to envision a plan for your life outside of the day-to-day structure you have spent years adjusting to. The second jump, starting your own business, adds the additional challenge of putting your success or failure completely on your own shoulders.

The good news is that countless veterans like us have taken these same jumps and have been astonishingly successful. Military experience gives us the ability to adapt and overcome, and that tenacity is a major contributor to business success. The bad news is that many of us left the military expecting a certain experience, and quickly found ourselves facing obstacles we did not anticipate.

In my best effort to make you successful and orient you to these obstacles, here are five things to keep in mind as you make the leap:

  • Welcome to your new country – try to learn the language. When I left the Army, I spoke a certain language (pop smoke, 50-meter target, high speed, etc.). The language I didn’t speak was business . . . or civilian. For many of us, certain behaviors found in the civilian workplace are completely unexpected, and we may find ourselves resisting them or even feeling smug at our superiority. You are now in a foreign land, and it is your job to learn the culture and the words to use.Even though you are starting your own business, try this exercise: ask a non-veteran you respect to do a mock job interview with you, in which they ask you to describe your background, experience, and plans for the future. The catch? Have them take notes of all the things that didn’t make sense to them. Do you say “brief” for presentation? Are you using job titles that have no civilian equivalent? Perhaps your mannerisms or slang don’t translate well? (I could have sworn that “squared-away” was a normal English phrase until someone asked me what it meant.)

    You have every reason to be proud of your military experience, and every opportunity to hang out with other veterans, but remember that we are a select few. Welcome to your new country.

  • No one cares that you are a veteran . . .  Surprised? Don’t be – the language of “thank you for your service” is a common nicety, and one I always appreciate, but that and a few bucks get you a cup of coffee. A common mistake is to believe that our military service will jump us to the head of the line when it comes to building our own businesses, and it is a hard lesson to learn that this just isn’t true. All businesses, every business, competes on quality and service to the customer, and no military record will make up for lack of business skills or poor planning. Will it help occasionally? Of course – but a poor plan is a poor plan, and a bad business is exactly that and nothing more.The takeaway? Assume you will get absolutely zero benefit from having served in the military and plan accordingly. Anything additional that comes to you will be a much-appreciated boost.
  • . . . except for other veterans. Surprised? Don’t be. Veterans love to help veterans. Sometimes it is because we miss the camaraderie of active duty. Sometimes it is because we actually believe that military service is a higher calling which makes you a more honorable person than those who never chose to serve. And sometimes we simply want to build our own businesses and realize that veterans helping veterans is a good way to earn some income. No matter the reason, remember this: when another veteran offers help, take it. It isn’t a handout or a sign of weakness – it is a continued mark of our bond with each other.A good way to help yourself and other veterans at the same time is to use veteran-owned businesses as your vendors. There are countless veteran web designers, accountants, attorneys, business plan counselors, graphic designers, and more. Using these vendors will support their businesses and will build your connections in a loyal community.

    That said, see number 2 above. Sometimes a bad business is a bad business, so don’t be afraid to say “thanks but no thanks” when another veteran offers to help you. We all know the guy/gal in the military who meant well but just didn’t quite get it – they’re still around.

  • Use the tools you have. There are so many free and low-cost opportunities available to assist veteran businesses that I could list them forever. Vet-to-CEOThe Jonas ProjectMy Ranger Biz – take the time to look into projects run by veterans to help veterans, and see if their services will benefit you. Sometimes the best thing they can do is let you know which resources are a great fit for your business model.Business counseling isn’t the only tool – you also have a host of government programs. Are you using the G.I. Bill to get further business training? Have you figured out that your veteran status could help you get government contracts? Are you aware of business loans geared towards veterans that have more favorable terms and lower interest rates? These programs exist for a reason – use them.
  • Don’t spend until you have to. As veterans, many of us like to have all the gear we think we need for a mission. I’m reminded of the guys who showed up to Ranger School with me and had three watches, four knives, and about fifty items they “heard” would help them.The same thing sometimes happens with veterans starting businesses. One day we have an idea, the next day we’ve spent thousands of dollars on courses, search engine optimization schemes, big office or retail spaces, long-term contracts with vendors, and more. Don’t do it.

    At the beginning, keep it lean and pack light. Every single dollar you spend needs to bring you value. For any vendor you talk to, try to get a free introductory rate or even a free trial. For professional services such as attorneys or accountants, ask for a very clear explanation of fees and seek a flat rate whenever possible. For bigger expenses such as equipment, inventory, or commercial leases, be exceedingly cautious with every dollar and remember that it is usually much easier to scale-up than scale-back.

You are making a big leap, but you aren’t doing it alone. Talk to others for advice, think carefully about each step, and remember: once you get up the wall, reach back and help the next veteran over the obstacle. Rangers Lead the Way!

James CreedonVeteran, Business
Treble Damages Under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act

James Creedon published an article in Texas Lawyer regarding the calculation of damages under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Although the DTPA provides for treble damages in certain circumstances, the pleading must match up with the statutory language to permit these damages at trial. The full article is available at the Texas Lawyer website — here is the link.

James Creedon
Interview on Ambitious Radio

Ambitious Radio, “Inspiring Conversations with Ambitious Entrepreneurs & Thought Leaders,” interviewed James Creedon on its most recent episode.  In a discussion ranging from the value of trademarks to lessons learned in the ancient saga of Gilgamesh, James offers helpful information for entrepreneurs seeking to protect their brands and grow their businesses. Click here to find the show notes and listen to the interview.

James Creedon
“Sorry — Your Business Name Has to Change”

What is a brand anyway?

Think of your favorite local business — perhaps a coffee shop, restaurant, clothing store, or even that one gas station with the best donuts. Now picture it in your mind. What do you see? Most people will imagine the name of the company, the logo, and the colors they associate with it. All of these identifying characteristics of a business are part of its branding, fall under the legal category of intellectual property, and can be protected by trademark registration.

Why protect a brand?

Many small businesses do not seek out trademarkprotection for their brand, believing this is only something to think about once they are “successful.” Unfortunately, that can lead to an unpleasant letter stating “sorry — your business name has to change.” For the business, and its owner, this may mean:

  • new signage on the business
  • new logos on uniforms
  • a new website domain and edits to the existing site
  • new advertising materials
  • new business cards
  • new coloring for displays
  • legal expenses
  • lost time and energy

How to protect a brand

The ideal way to avoid these complications is to proactively protect the business brand by doing three things:

  1. conducting a diligent clearance search before choosing a brand to be confident it is available;
  2. filing for federal trademark registration on the name and logo for the business; and
  3. properly using the registered trademarks to strengthen the business brand.

Brand clearance

The first step in conducting a clearance search is to decide on a name or list of names for your business. Once you do so, spend time on the internet looking for other businesses using the same, or similar, name. Consider companies that may be related, but not directly on point. For example, a brewery may want to look at vineyards, distilleries, sports drinks, or even coffee roasters. Once you feel confident no other company is using the brand you want, speak with a trademark attorney to assist in searching state and federal trademark registries. In the United States, a company can file for trademark protection on a brand it intends to use in the future, and therefore may have protection on a brand without actually having launched it publicly yet. Don’t be afraid to ask for a flat rate on this work, as growing businesses need to be careful not to overreach on their budgets.

Trademark filing

Federal trademark registration provides protection throughout the entire United States, including areas where your business is not operating. For example, a local Dallas company obtaining federal trademark registration now has protection on its brand in Alaska, California, and Florida. In the age of the internet, “local” has lost some of its meaning — after all, problems with an identically-named business in Florida could result in consumer confusion. Imagine a local restaurant that is building a growing reputation for quality and community service. Now imagine an identically-named restaurant in another state has an outbreak of food poisoning leading to an uptick in its internet presence due to news coverage. Will a consumer, searching for that local restaurant, realize that the news article online refers to a completely different business?

Most trademark attorneys will provide federal trademark registration for a flat rate. This rate should include:

  • A preliminary clearance search;
  • Discussion as to the proper goods or services the business offers;
  • Gathering up evidence (called “specimens”) of actual use of the brand;
  • Preparing federal trademark filing paperwork; and
  • The mandatory government filing fee.

Notably, because trademarks are divided into classes (a class for barbershops, a class for perfume, etc.), your application may require more than a single class. This should be clearly explained, and you should have a clear understanding of both the total cost of the application and the long-term cost for trademark registration.

Once your mark is filed, the application will take three months, on average, to be reviewed by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The good news is that, once granted, your registration date will look backward to the date you filed, so the delay is more of a nuisance than an obstacle to protection of your brand. Although the steps involved in obtaining final registration are beyond the scope of this article, a trademark attorney can provide general education as to how the process works.

Proper use

Once your business has registered its trademark, you now have the ability to mark your brand with the ® symbol. This symbol demonstrates to customers and competitors that you have obtained federal protection, and provides you with additional legal options when confronted by other businesses utilizing your brand. As a growing business, proper use of your brand can provide a shield against larger competitors, and can lay the foundation for future expansion into other states, franchising, licensing, or sale of the business. As the company grows, the brand can expand to new service lines and new goods, creating a trademark portfolio across a number of classes. A look at the Nike® brand will show you how far a mark can extend — from basketballs to water bottles, from clothing to cell phone applications, a properly-protected brand can obtain global reach while minimizing legal risk.

Conclusion

Protecting your business and its brand is a critical early step for long-term success. Taking proactive steps can prevent your company from receiving the dreaded “change your name” letter, and let you focus on what you do best — offering a great product to your community.

James Creedon
James Creedon selected to 2017 Texas Rising Stars

Creedon PLLC is proud to announce that James Creedon has been selected to the 2017 Texas Rising Stars list. Each year, no more than 2.5 percent of the lawyers in the state are selected by the research team at Super Lawyers to receive this honor.

Super Lawyers, a Thomson Reuters business, is a rating service of outstanding lawyers from more than 70 practice areas who have attained a high degree of peer recognition and professional achievement. The annual selections are made using a patented multiphase process that includes a statewide survey of lawyers, an independent research evaluation of candidates and peer reviews by practice area. The result is a credible, comprehensive and diverse listing of exceptional attorneys.

The Super Lawyers lists are published nationwide in Super Lawyers Magazines and in leading city and regional magazines and newspapers across the country. Super Lawyers Magazines also feature editorial profiles of attorneys who embody excellence in the practice of law. For more information about Super Lawyers, visit SuperLawyers.com.

 

James Creedon