Our firm occasionally confronts the administrative state on our clients’ behalf. An unexpected consequence of its very existence is that two litigants may at times be at each other’s throats in two places at once: in court and before an governmental agency acting as an administrative tribunal. Thus the U.S. Supreme Court recently considered a case where two hardware manufacturers with similar trademarks fought each other in court and before the Patent and Trademarks Office at the same time. Typically, as was the case there, one action will end before the other, and the second tribunal must decide whether the result obtained in the first resolves both actions.
The answer in the PTO case, and likely for other federal agencies, is “sometimes.” To put it another way, the Court said one could bind the other – under the right circumstances. The Agency’s adjudicative process must first be close enough to the rules of procedure used in court. Then the Agency and the Court must both be considering the same facts (this is usually the case) and use the same legal standards. That was the case for trademarks, where the PTO and the courts looked at trademark validity or infringement the same way. But it will not always be so, since judicial and administrative processes serve difference purposes.
There are a few more wrinkles of course. One in particular will keep a result before an Agency from dictating the outcome in court, even if all the other requirements are met: that is when agency adjudication is a prerequisite to court action. This is most common in civil rights cases, where the EEOC or the equivalent state agency must hear a charge before the courts can be involved.
The legal waters can get even trickier where two currents meet, and a good attorney can help you chart the course.