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Lake Martin Realty, Inc. v. Lake Martin Real Estate Co., LLC

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Eastern Division

December 18, 2019

LAKE MARTIN REALTY, INC., et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
THE LAKE MARTIN REAL ESTATE COMPANY, LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          EMILY C. MARKS CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         INTRODUCTION

         On June 3, 2019, Plaintiffs Lake Martin Realty, Inc. and Lake Martin Realty, LLC, (“Lake Martin Realty”) filed an amended complaint[1] alleging trademark infringement and unfair competition claims against Defendant The Lake Martin Real Estate Company, LLC (“Lake Martin Real Estate”). (Doc. 30). The parties are competing real estate and brokerage companies that operate around Lake Martin in Alabama. Specifically, the Plaintiffs allege a claim of false designation of origin, passing off, and unfair competition pursuant to Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a)(1)(B). They also allege a claim of unfair competition under Alabama common law. (Id.).

         Jurisdiction is premised on the Court's federal question jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and 15 U.S.C. § 1121, and the Court's supplemental jurisdiction of the state law claim pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a).

         Now pending before the Court is the Plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment (doc. 33) seeking judgment solely “on the issue that the LAKE MARTIN REALTY mark acquired distinctiveness before the defendant began using its mark and it is a protected mark.” (Id. at 1). The Plaintiffs contend that they have common law trademark rights to the mark “Lake Martin Realty” and the Defendant is unlawfully infringing on that mark by using the name “The Lake Martin Real Estate Company, LLC.” The Defendant filed a response in opposition to the motion, and the motion is now fully briefed and ripe for resolution. Upon careful consideration of the motion, the briefs, and the evidence filed in support of and in opposition to the motion, the Court concludes that the Plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment (doc. 33) is due to be denied.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         “Summary judgment is proper if the evidence shows ‘that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'” Hornsby-Culpepper v. Ware, 906 F.3d 1302, 1311 (11th Cir. 2018) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a)). “[A] court generally must view all evidence and make all reasonable inferences in favor of the party opposing summary judgment.” Fla. Int'l Univ. Bd. of Trs. v. Fla. Nat'l Univ., Inc., 830 F.3d 1242, 1252 (11th Cir. 2016). However, “conclusory allegations without specific supporting facts have no probative value.” Jefferson v. Sewon Am., Inc., 891 F.3d 911, 924-25 (11th Cir. 2018). If the record, taken as a whole, “could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, ” then there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. Hornsby-Culpepper, 906 F.3d at 1311 (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)).

         The movant bears the initial burden of demonstrating that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact, and the movant must identify the portions of the record which support this proposition. Hornsby-Culpepper, supra (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)). The movant may carry this burden “by demonstrating that the nonmoving party has failed to present sufficient evidence to support an essential element of the case.” Id. The burden then shifts to the non-moving party to establish, by going beyond the pleadings, that a genuine issue of material fact exists. Hornsby-Culpepper at 1311-12.

         FACTS

         The facts, taken in a light most favorable to the non-movant, are as follows:

         In January 2004, Russell Lands incorporated Lake Martin Realty, Inc., but did not use the corporation for any purpose until 2009. (Doc. 35 at Ex. A & L). In 2009, Russell Lands purchased an ERA franchise, and named the company ERA Lake Martin Realty, LLC. (Id. at Ex. B). ERA Lake Martin Realty was a real estate listings company doing business around Lake Martin in Alabama. In 2013, the Plaintiffs determined that their relationship with ERA did not benefit them, so they negotiated a settlement and left the franchise system. (Doc. 23, Tr. Prel. Inj. Hr'g at 25-27). The Plaintiffs began operating as Lake Martin Realty, LLC, on March 1, 2013. (Id. at 28).

         On June 18, 2018, Dusty Bowles, the owner and manager of the Defendant registered the name “The Lake Martin Real Estate Company, LLC” with the Alabama Secretary of State, and started doing business under that name. (Id.). In July 2018, Steve Forehand, Vice President and General Counsel for Russell Lands on Lake Martin wrote to Bowles requesting that she discontinue use of the words “Lake Martin Real Estate” as part of her business name. (Doc. 30, Ex. A). She declined, and this litigation followed.

         DISCUSSION

         The sole issue before the Court at this juncture is whether the “LAKE MARTIN REALTY mark acquired distinctiveness before the defendant began using its mark and is a protected mark.” (Doc. 33 at 1). It is undisputed that the Plaintiffs do not have a registered trademark. However, they ...


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