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GI Sportz, Inc. v. Valken, Inc.

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

June 15, 2017

GI SPORTZ, INC. and GI SPORTZ DIRECT, LLC, Plaintiffs,
v.
VALKEN, INC., Defendant.

          JOHN M. HANAMIRIAN HANAMIRIAN LAW FIRM PC On behalf of Plaintiffs

          ANTHONY J. DIMARINO, III EMMETT STEPHAN COLLAZO A.J. DIMARINO, III, PC On behalf of Defendant

          OPINION

          NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.

         This matter concerns claims for trade dress violations regarding the patterns on paintballs. Presently before the Court is the motion of Plaintiffs to strike all of Defendant's affirmative defenses. For the reasons expressed below, Plaintiffs' motion will be denied.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs, G.I. Sportz, Inc. and GI Sportz Direct, LLC (hereinafter “GI”), claim that GI is the world's leading provider of equipment and supplies to the paintball industry. GI owns a federal trademark registration, U.S. Reg. No. 3, 049, 101, which covers the trade dress of paintballs with “contrasting colors blended randomly together to form the appearance of a fanciful design on the surface of a paintball, ” called the “Marballizer” trade dress. The Marballizer trade dress has been in existence for over twenty years, and according to GI, in addition to being inherently distinctive, it has achieved a significant secondary meaning among dealers and consumers of paintballs, including an indication of high quality paintballs.

         In the instant action, GI claims that Defendant, Valken, Inc., has infringed on GI's trade dress by manufacturing, marketing, and selling paintballs with the Marballizer design. Previously in September 2012, GI, formerly Kee Action Sports, sued Valken for the same conduct, but the parties settled their dispute in March 2014. See KEE ACTION SPORTS LLC et al. v. VALKEN INC., Civil Action 1:12-cv-06069-NLH-KMW. GI claims that Valken has resumed its infringement, and has breached their settlement agreement.

         GI filed this action on October 13, 2016. On November 4, 4, 2016, Valken filed its answer, affirmative defenses, and counterclaims. On November 23, 2016, GI simultaneously filed a motion for preliminary injunction and a motion to strike Valken's affirmative defenses. The Court heard GI's preliminary injunction motion on December 21, 2016, and granted GI's motion, ordering that Valken was enjoined throughout the United States from “making, having made, importing, advertising, distributing, offering and selling paintballs with a shell having the appearance of a marble, specifically, a surface design having contrasting colors blended randomly together.” (See Docket No. 44, 49, 57.)

         Thereafter, the case has proceeded through discovery and in March 21, 2017, the matter was referred to mediation. GI's motion to strike Valken's affirmative defenses remains pending. Valken has opposed GI's motion.

         DISCUSSION

         A. Subject matter jurisdiction

         GI's trade dress infringement claims arise under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1051 et seq., and GI's breach of contract, common law infringement, and unfair competition claims arise under New Jersey law. This Court has jurisdiction over GI's federal claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, and supplemental jurisdiction over GI's state law claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1367.

         B. Standard for Motion to Strike Affirmative Defenses

         In Newborn Bros. Co., Inc. v. Albion Engineering Co., 299 F.R.D. 90, 93 (D.N.J. 2014), this Court set forth the standard for assessing a motion to strike a defendant's affirmative defenses:

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(f) provides in pertinent part that “[t]he court may strike from a pleading an insufficient defense or any redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous matter.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(f). The Rule permits the Court to act “on its own” or “on motion made by a party either before responding to the pleading or, if a response is not allowed, within 21 days after being served with the pleading.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(f)(1)-(2).

         “[M]otions to strike ‘serve a useful purpose by eliminating insufficient defenses and saving the time and expense which would otherwise be spent in litigating issues which would not affect the outcome of the case, '” United States v. Kramer, 757 F.Supp. 397, 410 (D.N.J. 1991) (citation omitted), but the Third Circuit has instructed that a district court “should not grant a motion to strike a defense unless the insufficiency of the defense is clearly apparent, ” Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc., 789 F.2d 181, 188 (3d Cir. 1986). In evaluating the adequacy of a defense, courts in this District have explained that “[a]n affirmative defense is insufficient if ‘it is not recognized as a defense to the cause of action.'” F.T.C. v. Hope Now Modifications, LLC, No. 09-1204, 2011 WL 883202, *2 (D.N.J. Mar. 10, 2011) (citing Tonka Corp. v. Rose Art Indus., Inc., 836 F.Supp. 200, 217 (D.N.J. 1993)); see also Signature Bank v. Check-X-Change, LLC, No. 12-2802, 2013 WL 3286154, at *2 (D.N.J. June 27, 2013).

         Courts have also observed that “‘an affirmative defense can be stricken [on the basis of the pleadings alone] only if the defense asserted could not possibly prevent recovery under any pleaded or inferable set of facts.'” Hope Now, 2011 WL 883202, at *1 (citing Tonka, 836 F.Supp. at 218). Importantly, “a motion to strike an affirmative defense will not be granted where its sufficiency depends on disputed issues of fact.” Signature Bank, 2013 WL 3286154, at *2 (quoting Total Containment, Inc. v. Environ Products, Inc., No. 91-7911, 1992 WL 208981, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 19, 1992)); see also In re Merck & Co., Inc. Vytorin ERISA Litig., No. 08-cv-1974, 2010 WL 2557564, at *2 (D.N.J. June 23, 2010) (citing Glenside West Corp. v. Exxon Co., 761 F.Supp. 1100, 1115 (D.N.J. 1991)).

         The Court must also bear in mind that, generally, “motions to strike under Rule 12(f) are highly disfavored.” Hope Now, 2011 WL 883202, at *1 (citing Garlanger v. Verbeke, 223 F.Supp.2d 596, 609 (D.N.J. 2002) (“Because of the drastic nature of the remedy, ... motions to strike are usually ‘viewed with disfavor' and will generally ‘be denied unless the allegations have no possible relation to the controversy and may cause prejudice to one of the parties, or if the allegations confuse the issues.'”) (quoting Tonka, 836 F.Supp. at 218). Motions to strike are viewed unfavorably because they are frequently brought by “the movant simply as a dilatory tactic.” Hope Now, 2011 WL 883202, at *1 (citing Waste Mgmt. Holdings v. Gilmore, 252 F.3d 316, 347 (4th Cir. 2001)); see also 5C Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure, § 1381 (3d ed. 2004) (recognizing that “[m]otions to strike a defense as insufficient are not favored by the federal courts because of their somewhat dilatory and often harassing character”).

         “‘[E]ven where the challenged material is redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous, a motion to strike should not be granted unless the presence of the surplusage will prejudice the adverse party.'” Hope Now, 2011 WL 883202, at *1 (citing Symbol Techs., Inc. v. Aruba Networks, Inc., 609 F.Supp.2d 353, 359 (D. Del. 2009)); see also 5C Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure, § 1381 (3d ed. 2004) (explaining that “even when technically appropriate and well-founded, Rule 12(f) motions often are not granted in the absence of a showing of prejudice to the moving party”). The Court's determination on a “motion to strike under Rule 12(f) is discretionary.” Hope Now, 2011 WL 883202, at *1; see also Signature Bank, 2013 WL 3286154, at *2 (observing that “‘a court possesses considerable discretion in disposing of a motion to strike under Rule 12(f)'”) (quoting Tonka, 836 F.Supp. at 218).

         C. Analysis

         Valken has asserted nineteen affirmative defenses:

FIRST AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE
(Failure to state a claim)
The complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.
SECOND AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE
(Trade Dress Invalidity)
The Trademark/trade dress listed as Registration No. 3, 049, 101 on the principal register maintained by the United State Patent and Trademark ...

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