Fifth Circuit ruling proves charter schools are not immune from trademark suits

In Springboards to Education, Inc v McAllen Independent School District (Case Numbers 21-40333; -40334; 5th Cir, 8 March 2023), the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of a trademark suit against a charter school operator and public school district in Texas but explained that the charter school was not automatically immune from lawsuits based on sovereign immunity. 

The district court’s dismissal

Springboards sells products to school districts through its Read a Million Words campaign. The campaign incentivises school children to read books through promises of induction into the Millionaires’ Reading Club and access to rewards such as t-shirts, backpacks and fake money. Springboards’s goods typically bear any combination of trademarks that the company registered with the USPTO, including READ A MILLION WORDS, MILLION DOLLAR READER, MILLIONAIRE READER and MILLIONAIRES’ READING CLUB.

Springboards filed a complaint for trademark infringement, trademark counterfeiting and false designation of origin against McAllen Independent School District (MISD), a public school district in Texas, and IDEA Public Schools, a non-profit organisation operating charter schools in the state.

Both MISD and IDEA moved to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, arguing that they were arms of the state and thus entitled to sovereign immunity. They also moved for summary judgment for lack of infringement.

The district court ruled that only IDEA enjoyed sovereign immunity, granting the organisation’s motion to dismiss but denying MISD’s. It did grant MISD’s motion for summary judgment after concluding that Springboards could not establish that MISD’s program was likely to cause confusion with the former’s trademarks – a conclusion that Springboards appealed.

The Fifth Circuit’s affirmation

The Fifth Circuit began with the jurisdictional issue of whether IDEA and MISD enjoyed sovereign immunity. The court explained that a determination of whether an entity is an arm of the state is governed by the Clark factors outlined in the Fifth Circuit’s 1986 decision in Clark v Tarrant County:

  • whether state statutes and case law view the entity as an arm of the state;
  • the source of the entity’s funding;
  • the entity’s degree of local autonomy;
  • whether the entity is concerned primarily with local, as opposed to statewide, problems;
  • whether the entity has the authority to sue and be sued in its own name; and
  • whether the entity has the right to hold and use property.

The Fifth Circuit analysed each factor and concluded that IDEA was not an arm of the state. The court found that factors one and three favoured sovereign immunity while factors two, four, five and six did not.

The Fifth Circuit’s decision focused heavily on factor two, explaining that the inquiry under it depends on the state’s liability in the event there is a judgment against the defendant and the state’s liability for the defendant’s general debts and obligations. The district court concluded that factor two weighed in favour of immunity because 94% of IDEA’s funding came from state and federal sources. The Fifth Circuit disagreed, finding no evidence that Texas was obligated to indemnify IDEA. The court explained that almost a quarter of IDEA’s annual funding came from non-state sources, which belied the assertion that Texas would be responsible for any judgment. It similarly assessed that MISD did not enjoy sovereign immunity under the Clark factors because a judgment against MISD would not fall upon Texas.

The Fifth Circuit next turned to Springboards’s trademark claims and determined that the district court properly granted summary judgment in MISD’s favour. The court further found that the summary judgment for IDEA was proper.

Following its prior decisions involving Springboards’s trademark claims, the Fifth Circuit determined that there was no likelihood of confusion on identical claims against schools for factually indistinguishable, monetary-themed reading incentive programs. The court found that the same reasons applied here, including that monetary-based reading programmes with nearly identical language predate Springboards’s campaign, there was no evidence MISD intended to confuse other districts by attempting to derive benefits from Springboards’s reputation by using its marks and school districts typically exercise great care as consumers and are unlikely to be candidates for confusion. The court also noted that Springboards’s identical claims against IDEA failed, and thus summary judgment was proper for both MISD and IDEA.

Circuit Judge Stephen Oldham concurred but wrote separately because he found it “absurd” that the Fifth Circuit was asked to hold that a private charter school enjoys sovereign immunity while a public school district does not. He explained that the line of cases that make such a question possible is evidence that the “arm of the state” doctrine is too cumbersome. Judge Oldham found that the Clark factors prompt needless litigation and should be replaced with a single factor test that asks: “Was the entity asserting state sovereign immunity considered ‘the State’ in 1789?” If the answer is yes, sovereign immunity applies; if it is no, it does not apply.

This is an Insight article, written by a selected partner as part of WTR's co-published content. Read more on Insight

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