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Judge Skeptical About Dismissing Suit Against Indians Sued by Redskins Team

Updated on November 3, 2014

Native Americans Want Out of Redskins' Lawsuit

A federal judge in Virginia is trying to decide whether to stretch the limits of who can be sued in a lawsuit the Washington Redskins football team filed against a group of Native Americans.

A petition five Native Americans filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office led the team to temporarily lose the trademark protection for its name. Administrative law judges for the patent and trademark office ruled in June the team name was demeaning toward Native Americans.

In response, the team sued both the patent and trademark office and the five Native Americans in federal court in Alexandria to get the legal protections for their name returned. A judge reinstated the trademark protection — and the right of the team to collect millions of dollars of revenue from sales of merchandise — at least until the lawsuit is resolved.

The court is trying to decide whether the Native Americans are “real parties in interest” who can be included in the lawsuit. A real party in interest refers to anyone possessing a substantive right that is disputed in a claim.

Robert Raskopf, the team’s attorney from the firm of Quinn, Emanuel, Urquhart & Sullivan, argued the Native Americans already acknowledged their interest in the lawsuit when they told the trademark administrative law judges they had a personal stake in the Redskins’ name. Dismissing them from the lawsuit would deprive the team of its right to seek a remedy through the courts, Raskopf argued.

However, Jesse Witten, lead attorney for the Native Americans from the firm of Drinker, Biddle & Reath, argues the Redskins’ dispute is with the patent and trademark office, not his clients.

Witten said there are different standards between an administrative review of a trademark issue and suing in a court. The Redskins’ lawsuit involves financial and ethnic issues that are different from most trademark disputes, he argued.

Judge Gerald Bruce Lee asked Witten how the Native Americans could not be considered parties to the lawsuit when they prompted it by filing a complaint with the patent and trademark office.

He said that if he dismissed them as “parties in interest,” he would be the first judge ever to have ruled that parties to a trademark dispute were not parties to a resulting lawsuit.

The team could have challenged the administrative law decision in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., but the evidence would have been limited only to trademark issues. The Redskins sued in U.S. District Court for an opportunity to introduce additional evidence.

The Oneida Indian Nation is funding the multi-media “Change the Mascot” campaign that included radio ads before a recent Redskins football game in Minnesota. Team owner Dan Snyder has refused to change the name despite pleas from top politicians and others.

A ruling by the judge on whether to dismiss the Native Americans as parties in the lawsuit is expected soon.

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