On Friday, March 20, 2015, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”) issued a proposed rule which would make significant changes to the federal Medicare and Medicaid Electronic Health Records (“EHR”)Incentive Programs (collectively the “Meaningful Use Program”).
The Meaningful Use Program operates in 3 stages, with providers required to demonstrate increasing use/metrics at each stage to continue to receive payments. Under the Meaningful Use Program, eligible professionals, eligible hospitals and critical access hospitals can receive incentive payments for demonstrating Meaningful Use of certified EHR technology. Furthermore, starting in 2015, health care providers who are eligible to participate in the program, but choose not to participate or are not able to demonstrate Meaningful Use, may see downward payment adjustments to the amounts reimbursed by Medicare. Thus, the Meaningful Use Program has been a source of additional income to some providers, but for many others it has been a serious concern due to the significant capital outlays required to demonstrate Meaningful Use of certified EHR and potential penalties that may be forthcoming. The proposed rule from last Friday has some providers even more concerned about the feasibility of meeting Meaningful Use standards and the push to achieve Meaningful Use when so many are struggling.
Under the proposed rule, CMS will make several changes to the Meaningful Use Program. The following are descriptions of some of CMS’ important proposals:
Stage 3 Meaningful Use will have an optional year in 2017 and starting in 2018, all providers will report on the same definition of Meaningful Use at Stage 3, regardless of prior participation. CMS intends this requirement to respond to stakeholder input re the complexity of the program, success to date and to set a long-term sustainable foundation for the Meaningful Use Program.
In order to align the Meaningful Use Program with other CMS incentives, such as the Physician Quality Reporting System or PQRS, CMS will require all providers to report on a calendar year EHR reporting period beginning in 2017.
CMS desires to promote improved patient outcomes and health information exchange in Stage 3 and thus the rule focuses on patient engagement. For example, providers must meet two of the following three requirements for patient engagement: (i) patients view, download or transmit their health information; (ii) secure messaging between providers and patients; and (iii) patient generated health data from a non-clinical setting is incorporated into a certified EHR.
While CMS sets forth many goals in support of its proposed rulemaking (e.g., the triple aim), one message comes through clearly, CMS is pushing forward with EHR and is not slowing down due to sluggish adoption by health care practitioners. Accordingly, providers and their industry groups have been lamenting the onerous burdens of the Meaningful Use Program and the fact that less than 35% of hospitals and only a small fraction of physicians have met Stage 2 requirements. Furthermore, providers who fail to meet the minimum use thresholds could be subject to hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties.
Contrary to providers, those in the health information technology or digital health industry should be quite pleased with the rule as it may provide them with additional customers and markets as providers try to interface with and collect data from patients’ health wearables (e.g., smart watches with heart rate sensors).
In sum, the proposed rule clearly signifies that CMS is planning to take a stringent approach to ensure that providers are meaningfully compliant by 2018. Providers can take steps to mitigate their exposure to penalties by investing in certified EHR, perhaps in conjunction with applying for hardship exemptions from the Meaningful Use Program’s requirements, to delay the date where they must comply or be subject to penalties. Health information technology vendors generally and EHR vendors specifically should plan to modify and ensure that their technology is compliant and sufficiently differentiated to provide value to health care providers that must comply with the Meaningful Use Program’s requirements.
Supreme Court Holds That TTAB Decisions on Likelihood of Confusion May Bind Courts in Infringement Litigation
In a 7 – 2 decision issued March 24, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court held that decisions of the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) on the issue of likelihood of confusion, made in registration cases, can be binding on courts in deciding the same issue in subsequent infringement cases. Such “issue preclusion” will likely arise if the uses of the marks before the court are materially the same as the uses considered by the TTAB. The decision in B&B Hardware, Inc. v. Hargis Industries, Inc. is likely trigger more hotly contested — and more expensive — TTAB litigation.
In this case, B&B owned a registration for “Sealtight” for metal fasteners used in the aerospace industry. Hargis sought to register “Sealtite” for metal screws used in the manufacture of buildings. B&B opposed registration, claiming that use of the marks on the respective goods would create a likelihood of confusion. The TTAB agreed and sustained the opposition. In a parallel infringement action, the district court refused to be bound by the TTAB decision, reasoning that the TTAB is not an Article III court. The jury went on to find that confusion was not likely.
The Eighth Circuit affirmed. It held that while an administrative agency’s decision can be a basis for applying collateral estoppel, the doctrine was not appropriate in this context, primarily because the TTAB and the Eighth Circuit use different factors to evaluate likelihood of confusion.
In an opinion by Judge Alito, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed. It held first that “issue preclusion is not limited to those situations in which the same issue is between two courts” (emphasis in original). Rather, under Astoria Fed. Sav. & Loan Assn. v. Solomino, 501 U.S. 104 (1991), “courts may take it as a given” that Congress intends issue preclusion to apply to administrative proceedings where appropriate, except when a statutory purpose to the contrary is evident. The court held that no such purpose was evident in the Lanham Act of 1946.
The court acknowledged that the TTAB considers different factors than do courts in determining likelihood of confusion. In particular, the TTAB compares marks and goods as they are set forth in prior registrations and pending applications, whereas a court will consider all elements of the parties’ uses, including the context in which the marks appear on packaging. But the court held that the same legal standard of “likelihood of confusion” always applies, even if different usages are considered. Therefore, the possibility of applying collateral estoppel cannot be categorically ruled out.
Importantly, however, the court did not hold that issue preclusion always applies. The question depends primarily on whether the actual usages of the respective marks are “materially different” from the usages specified in the applications or registrations at issue. “If the TTAB does not consider the marketplace usage of the parties’ marks, the TTAB’s decision should have no later preclusive effect in a suit where actual usage in the marketplace is the paramount issue,” it said.
Justice Ginsburg separately concurred to emphasize this point. Quoting the authoritative McCarthy on Trademarks and Unfair Competition treatise, she noted that contested registrations are often decided upon “a comparison of the marks in the abstract and apart from their marketplace usage.” When the registration proceeding is of that character, she said, there will be no preclusion in a later infringement suit.
As a result, the preclusive effect of a prior TTAB decision will be a point of contention in a subsequent infringement action. The court will have to look closely at what the TTAB decided, and the evidence it relied upon. For example, in some cases the opposer relies on a registration which is unrestricted as to trade channels or likely purchasers, even though the opposer’s actual business may be restricted to a narrow area. This can sometimes lead to anomalous results, if the applicant seeks to register the same or similar mark for the same or similar goods, but uses its mark in entirely different fields of endeavor, such that the prospects for confusion in the “real world” are remote. Nevertheless, the TTAB will likely refuse registration in that scenario. It would appear that the B&B decision would permit the court, in a subsequent infringement case, to disregard the TTAB decision and decide “likelihood of confusion” based on the parties’ actual use.
In many cases, however, the question of preclusive effect will not be so clear cut. For this reason, parties litigating in the TTAB must consider that the TTAB decision will compel an identical result if infringement litigation ensues later. Typically, TTAB cases have been litigated in a more leisurely and less expensive manner than a court case. After B&B, some may choose to develop a fuller record to help assure preclusion in the event of a future infringement action against the applicant. This would lead to TTAB cases being litigated even more aggressively (and expensively) than they are now.
The decision may also encourage opposers, who fail to prevent registration at the TTAB, to seek review not by appeal to the federal circuit, but by the alternative means of filing a civil action in U.S. District Court under Section 21 of the Lanham Act. In such a case, the opposer would be entitled to de novo review of the TTAB decision and would be able to include infringement claims. The TTAB decision would have no preclusive effect in that case.
The B&B decision finally answers the question of which different circuits have taken different approaches. It does not, however, provide an answer to the question of whether a TTAB decision on likelihood of confusion will or will not have a preclusive effect on a court in a particular infringement litigation. That question will be determined on a case-by-case basis, under normal principles of issue preclusion.