Developments In NC State Trademark Law

When I last wrote about SCI North Carolina Funeral Services, LLC v. McEwen Ellington Funeral Services, Inc., Judge Murphy had entered a TRO against the Defendants for trademark infringement over their use of the McEwen name in their funeral home business.  The case seemed cut and dried then, and it looked like that the Defendants had no defense to the infringement claim.

Last week, Judge Murphy entered a preliminary injunction in the same case in 2013 NCBC 11, this time over the Defendants' vigorous defense.  The second time around was a much closer call. 

The case involves the McEwen name, which is the middle name of Defendant Carl Ellington. When the Defendants sold the funeral homes that they had operated under the McEwen name to the Plaintiffs, they included in the sale the rights to all "trademarks, tradenames (including all trade names under which [they] did business."  McEwen was the last name of Carl J. McEwen, the founder of McEwen Funeral Services, Inc.

Several years after their sale, the Defendants opened a new, competing funeral home under the McEwen name and this trademark infringement lawsuit ensued.

 

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North Carolina Securities Act Claims Take Shape In The Business Court

There is little case law under the North Carolina Securities Act.  But last week, in NNN Durham Office Portfolio 1, LLC v. Highwoods Realty Limited Partnership, 2013 NCBC 12, Judge Gale took several steps into that uncharted territory.

TIC Interests Are Securities

The first issue addressed in NNN was whether the "TIC interests" purchased by Plaintiffs fell within the definition of a "security."  If you've never heard of a TIC interest, it is "an undivided share in real property 'with each person having an equal right to possess the whole property. . . .'" Op. ¶42.

There's been a good bit of litigation about whether a TIC interest can  be considered a security.  It's not a security if it simply involves the sale of fractional real estate shares, but it can be if it is coupled with a management contract.

That was the situation before the Court in NNN.  Plaintiffs had purchased TIC interests in several office buildings in Durham.  Two of the primary tenants of the buildings were affiliates of the Duke University Health System.  The properties were to be managed by Triple Net Properties, LLC, which is a defendant in a separate lawsuit also before the Business Court.

Plaintiffs alleged that Triple Net and Highwoods, the former owner of the properties, obtained their investment by making material misstatements which misled them into making their purchases. The alleged misstatements concerned Duke's intention to remain as a tenant.  After the purchases of the TIC interests, Duke decided not to renew its leases.  The properties which it had occupied then went to foreclosure. 

The State Scheme For Civil Liability Under The Securities Act

Section 78A-56(a) imposes "primary liability" on the seller or offeror of a security.  There are two "pathways" to primary liability.  One lies in fraud, generally comparable to federal 10b-5 claims. That's in N.C. Gen. Stat. §78A-8, (Section 78A-56(a) creates civil liability for a violation of section 78A-8.)  The other pathway is through making false or misleading statements, comparable to federal claims under 12(a)(2) of the Securities Act of 1933.  That's in N.C. Gen. Stat. §78A-56(a)(2).

Note that the remedies under the NCSA are less generous than those under the corresponding federal claims.  The recovery under NC law is generally limited to the consideration paid for the security.  N.C. Gen. Stat. §78A-56(a).

Pleading, Scienter, and Justifiable Reliance Under Sections 56(a)(1) and 56(a)(2)

Judge Gale ruled that a Plaintiff must prove scienter and justifiable reliance to make out a primary violation under Section 56(a)(1) of the NCSA.  Recall that Judge Murphy ruled last year that scienter is not necessarily a required element of a claim under Section 56(a)(2), which can be grounded on negligence.  

So, Judge Gale ruled, a claim under Section 56(a)(1) must be pled with particularity, in compliance with Rule 9(b) of the NC Rules of Civil Procedure.  Op. ¶¶62-63.

Section 56(a)(2) is different.  It provides for a claim against an offeror or a seller of a security "who (1) makes any untrue statement of a material fact, or (2) fails to state a material fact necessary for a statment which was made to not be misleading."  Op. ¶64.  There's a built-in defense in the statute.  A seller or offeror can avoid liability for such a statement or omission if he can prove that "he did not know, and in the exercise of reasonable care could not have known of the truth or omission."  N.C. Gen. Stat. §78A-56(a)(2).

On pleading requirements as to Section 56(a)(2),  Judge Gale ruled that "the heightened pleading standards of Rule 9(b) do not apply [to a claim under that Section] where the action is grounded on negligence, but rather Rule of Civil Procedure 8(c) controls."  Op. ¶67.  The plaintiff also doesn't need to prove justifiable reliance under this Section.  Id.

Secondary Liability Under Section 56(a)(2)

North Carolina extends secondary liability under Section 56(a)(2) to "every other person who materially aids in the transaction."  But the "other person" must be shown to "actually [know] of the factual predicate of the primary liability."  Op. ¶69.

What does "materially aid" mean?  Judge Gale devoted several paragraphs of his decision to that issue (¶¶71-80), and concluded that:

for purposes of the present Rule 12(b)(6) motion the court will require allegations of conduct which rises to the level of having contributed substantial assistance to the act or conduct leading to primary liability under the NCSA, and, when later assessing plaintiff’s proof, will apply the concept of 'substantial assistance' restrictively.

Op. ¶79.

The Liability Of One Of The Defendants

The last part of the opinion deals with the liability of the Defendant Highwoods.  Highwoods conveyed the fractional interests in the properties directly to the Plaintiffs, but hadn't been involved in the peddling of the management contract.  That wasn't enough to make it liable as a seller of the security and make it primarily liable, so there was no claim for liability under Section 78A-56(a)(1).

Highwoods did not fare as well on Plaintiffs' claims that it was secondarily liable under Section 78A-56(a)(2).  Judge Gale ruled that "[w]hether a person’s participation in the sale of a security constitutes 'material aid' and whether that person 'actually knew of the existence of the facts by reason of which the liability is alleged to exist' are necessarily fact-intensive inquiries. " Op. ¶91.

The facts about Highwoods' knowledge that Duke planned to vacate the sold properties are to be the subject of "further proceedings."  Op. ¶90.

Being a Tar Heel fan, I have to say It's a shame that no one can figure out a way to sue Duke.

 

O Lord Don't Buy The Nanny A Mercedes-Benz

The Order Wednesday of last week in Patriot Performance Materials, Inc. v. Powell, 2013 NCBC 10 was appropriately timed for the day before Valentine's Day.

Powell, the Defendant, had a 50% interest in several businesses with Henderson, one of the Plaintiffs.  He alleged in a third party complaint that Henderson, who shared the other 50% interest, had diverted $30,000 (and more) from their corporations.

The purpose of the $30,000?  For Henderson to shower goodies on the nanny for his children.  The third party complaint against the nanny said that the funds were lavished upon her to buy her a "Mercedes-Benz automobile and a high-end Mac computer."  Op. 5.  

Perhaps the nanny's child-care services were exceptional and warranted the computer and the Mercedes.  Or perhaps the allegations of the Third Party Complaint against the nanny, which were that she was Henderson's mistress, were true.

And she wasn't the only woman who was the target of Henderson's largesse, though the $30,000 spent on her was small potatoes.  The Third Party Complaint alleges that Henderson took $800,000 in company funds "to spend primarily on extravagant European and Middle Eastern vacations with both his wife . . . and his mistress."  Third Party Complaint at 37.

Powell argued that the diversion of $30,000 for the Mercedes and the computer was an inappropriate use of corporate funds. He sued the nanny, Amber Clancy, for unjust enrichment.  

That didn't fly, for a couple of reasons.  Unjust enrichment does not include claims for gifts, which were what Powell alleged the Mercedes and the Macintosh  were.  Also, Judge Gale ruled that Powell was not the proper party to bring the claim.  He said that "it was the corporation, not Powell individually, who conferred a benefit . . . upon Clancy and it is the corporation that would be the proper party to bring such an action."  Op. ¶10.

Our nannies always drove Porsches.

Business Court Excludes Testimony Of Financial Expert On Lost Profit Damages

The case of Blythe v. Bell is like the gift that keeps on giving.  It generated two significant opinions last year, and this week a third and a fourth.  The July 2012 opinion was a major e-discovery decision, and the December 2012 opinion addressed an important issue about the assignment of LLC interests.

Today's post is about the Blythe v. Bell opinion numbered 2013 NCBC 8, on the subject of expert testimony.  In this third Blythe opinion, Defendants had moved to exclude the testimony of Plaintiffs' expert witness, Barbee, on the grounds that he was not qualified to render his opinion and that his methodology was deficient.

Barbee, a CPA, had offered testimony that the Plaintiffs' damages were lost profits consisting of more than ten million dollars, including  “historic lost profits” of about $3.3 million;  and “additional lost profits” of about $7.4 million.  Defendants' Motion to Exclude at ¶7.

Remember that it is very tough to prove lost profit damages in North Carolina.  As Judge Gale held, 

[w]hile the courts do not demand mathematical certitude in calculating
lost profits, they do not countenance conjecture or speculation, and conjecture or
speculation does not become admissible simply because it is presented by an expert.

Op. ¶19.  He also said that while the amount of damages to be awarded is for the jury to determine, "the court determines as a matter of law whether the evidence would allow a jury to calculate lost profits with reasonable certainty."  Op. Par. 20.

Furthermore, the expert testimony must "pass the realm of conjecture, speculation, or opinion not founded on facts, and must consist of actual facts from which a reasonably accurate conclusion regarding the cause and the amount of the loss can be logically and rationally drawn." Op. ¶20 (quoting Overnite Transp. Co. v. Int'l Brotherhood of Teamsters, 257 N.C. 18, 30, 125 S.E.2d 277, 286 (1962). 

The Defendants attacked Barbee's expertise, saying that he was not a qualified expert on the subject of marketing and that the method he had used to calculate lost profits was not reliable enough to pass muster.

Judge Gale gave a nod of approval to Barbee's expertise, saying that he was well qualified in the field of damages calculations.  He had the qualifications many of us look for when hiring a financial expert, like certifications from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants in the areas of business valuation and financial forensics.

The AICPA puts limitations on a CPA's methods of calculating lost profits.  One of its publications counsels against speculation, saying that "damages for lost profits are recoverable only if the plaintiff can prove the damages related to lost profits are reasonable and that they have been calculated using reliable factors without undue speculation."  Op. ¶16 (quoting Richard A. Pollack, et al, AICPA, Calculating Lost Profits, Ch. 58 ¶¶ 52-53 (2006)).

Judge Gale ruled that Barbee's calculation of lost profits crossed the line into "conjecture and speculation" and that it should be excluded from evidence.  Op. ¶5.  

So where did Barbee leave the terra firma of "reliable factors" and enter the world of "conjecture and speculation"?  His calculation assumed that one of the Plaintiffs would have increased its sale of the socks that were central to the lawsuit and thereby its profits.  He based that calculation upon an assumption that the Plaintiffs would have had more dollars available to spend on marketing to increase sales.  He didn't specify how the dollars would have been spent or how they would have generated new sales.

But if you are cheering for the Blythe side of this case, all wasn't lost.  Part of Barbee's calculation of lost profits withstood Judge Gale's scrutiny.  That portion (the "historic" lost profits of $3.3 million) didn't involve a projection of sales which hadn't happened, but instead was based on actual sales.  Even so, the Blythe side of the case had their damages reduced by 75%.