International Foundation of Employee Ben. Plans, Inc. v. Cottrell, No. WDQ–14–1269, 2015 WL 127839 (D. Md. Jan. 7, 2015)
IFEBP sued Cottrel, d/b/a HR Vantage, for false advertising, trademark infringement, and related claims. IFEBP is a nonprofit that trains and certifies professionals in employee benefits and compensation, with registrations for CEBS and Certified Employee Benefits Specialist (certification marks allowing certified individuals to use those designations). Cottrell provides disability retirement counseling to federal employees, and uses those designations on her website and LinkedIn profile, but doesn’t have certification from IFEBP.
IFEBP alleged harm in the form of “lost sales of [IFEBP’s] educational and examination fees,” as well as harm to its reputation because Cottrell “is providing substandard services,” and “customers receiving such sub-standard services from Cottrell will presume ... that [IFEBP has] certified [Cottrell’s] sub-standard services.”
Cottrell argued that IFEBP didn’t show harm causation from her alleged use of its marks and that its claims failed because they weren’t competitors. The court found that her competition-based argument applied to both the §43(a) false designation and the §43(a) false advertising claims. The court then reasoned that Lexmark applied to both prongs of §43(a). The Supreme Court relied on the Lanham Act’s purpose, which applies to all its provisions; “there is no reason to think the Supreme Court would apply different standing requirements to a false designation claim.” Indeed, the Court then observed that “[m]ost of the enumerated purposes are relevant to false-association cases.” Thus, direct competition wasn’t required for either claim.
IFEBP plausibly alleged a likelihood of confusion. And confusion wasn’t a necessary element of its false advertising claim; when a representation “is literally false, a violation may be established without evidence of consumer deception.” The allegations sufficiently delineated literal falsity. Plus, IFEBP alleged economic and reputational injury: Cottrell displayed its certification without paying “educational and examination fees,” and customers would believe that IFEBP “certified [Cottrell’s] sub-standard services.” (That first injury doesn’t really seem like Lexmark injury. It occurs to IFEBP as vendor of services, the flip side of injury suffered as a customer, which isn’t within the Lanham Act’s definition of harm according to the Supreme Court.)