The Supreme Court in Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, —- U.S. ——, 129 S.Ct. 365, 374 (2008) held that that the Ninth Circuit’s “possibility” standard in granting preliminary injunctions is too lenient reiterating the standard requires plaintiffs seeking preliminary relief to demonstrate irreparable injury is likely in the absence of an injunction. In the Ninth Circuit, to obtain injunctive relief, a plaintiff must establish (1) a likelihood of success on the merits, (2) a likelihood of irreparable harm absent a preliminary injunction, (3) that the balance of equities tips in favor of issuing an injunction and (4) that an injunction is in the public interest. In the Winter case, the Supreme Court ultimately weighed the public interest factor in favor of the Navy, lifting the limitations imposed on use of “mid-frequency active” sonar during integrated training exercises in the waters off southern California.
Previously in trademark cases, a plaintiff was entitled to a presumption of irreparable harm upon showing a probable success on the merits. See GoTo.com, Inc. v. Walt Disney Co., 202 F.3d 1199, 1204-05 (9th Cir.2000). However, in Winter, the Supreme Court held that “[i]ssuing a preliminary injunction based only on a possibility of irreparable harm is inconsistent with our characterization of injunctive relief as an extraordinary remedy that may only be awarded upon a clear showing that the plaintiff is entitled to such relief.” Winter, at 375-76 (emphasis added). A plaintiff is no longer entitled to a presumption of irreparable harm on the ground that it has shown a likelihood of success on the merits. Rather, plaintiff must demonstrate that in the absence of a preliminary injunction, the applicant is likely to suffer irreparable harm before a decision on the merits can be rendered. The mere possibility of some remote future injury would be insufficient under this new test enunciated by the Supreme Court.
A preliminary injunction is an extraordinary remedy never awarded as of right. The court must always balance the competing claims of injury and consider the effect on each party of the granting or withholding of the requested relief. Here, the court has expanded its emphasis upon the public consequences in employing the extraordinary remedy of injunction. Interestingly, the court deemed the Navy’s concerns about the preliminary injunction “speculative” because the Navy had not operated under similar procedures before noting that this is almost always the case when a plaintiff seeks injunctive relief to alter a defendant’s conduct.
It is unclear if the Winter decision overrules the Second Circuit alternative test that a party may obtain injunctive relief if it shows that (1) there are questions so serious, substantial, difficult, and doubtful as to make them fair ground for litigation and thus more deliberate investigation; and (2) the harm that it would suffer is ‘decidedly’ greater than the harm that its adversary would suffer is still valid law. See, Buffalo Courier-Express, Inc. v. Buffalo Evening News, Inc., 601 F.2d 48, 58 (2d Cir.1979).
Since the Winter decision there have been a number of district court and appellate court decisions that have considered this “heightened” standard. It appears that the courts are giving the public interest factor additional attention, but with little change in result. If anything, it would seem that the courts will be careful to more fully address this public interest factor in the future and accordingly it should be addressed in a motion for preliminary relief. Because the very essence of trademark law is to protect the consumer from being confused, there is an inherent public interest in every trademark case to prevent a likelihood of consumer confusion.