Judge Tosses Trader Joe’s Trademark Complaint Against Union In Brutal Fashion
A federal judge threw out Trader Joe’s trademark infringement claim against its workers’ union on Friday, delivering the equivalent of a legal smackdown in an order dismissing the complaint.
Hernán D. Vera, a judge for the U.S. District Court of the Central District of California, wrote that the grocer tried to “weaponize the legal system” against the union, Trader Joe’s United, all in the hopes of “gain[ing] advantage in an ongoing legal labor dispute.”
Vera determined that Trader Joe’s legal effort against the union “comes dangerously close to the line of Rule 11” ― a federal rule that allows district courts to sanction attorneys for submitting filings for an “improper purpose.”
A Trader Joe’s spokesperson could not immediately be reached Saturday for comment on Vera’s order. Nor could David Eberhart, a partner at the law firm O’Melveny & Myers, who was listed as the lead attorney on the complaint against Trader Joe’s United.
“It strains credulity to believe that the present lawsuit… would have been filed absent the ongoing organizing efforts that Trader Joe’s employees have mounted (successfully) in multiple locations across the country.”
– U.S. District Judge Hernán D. Vera
Trader Joe’s filed its lawsuit against the union in July, alleging that the swag the union was selling in its online store violating the company’s trademarks. Trader Joes claimed that the sale of the items ― like a reusable shopping bag that says Trader Joe’s United and shows a raised fist clenching a box cutter ― could “dilute” its brand and cause “significant reputational harm.”
Vera, an appointee of President Joe Biden, wasn’t buying it. He seemed to think the lawsuit was not about brand dilution so much as the organizing effort that has led to four union stores and counting (the company has disputed the results of one of those elections).
“This action is undoubtedly related to an existing labor dispute,” Vera wrote, “and it strains credulity to believe that the present lawsuit… would have been filed absent the ongoing organizing efforts that Trader Joe’s employees have mounted (successfully) in multiple locations across the country.”
Vera found it highly unlikely that someone would buy one of the union’s items thinking it was the grocer’s: “the logos used by the Union are in a different font, do not utilize the distinctive fruit basket design, apply concentric rings of different proportions, and are applied to products that no reasonable consumer could confuse as coming from Trader Joe’s itself.”
He also noted that to buy one of the union’s items a supporter had to go to the union’s online store: “it is simply not plausible to imagine a reasonable consumer going to the Union’s website, purchasing a Union-branded coffee mug, and mistakenly believing it to be sold by Trader Joe’s.”
The judge dismissed Trader Joe’s complaint “in its entirety.”
A different judge recently threw out a similar complaint that Medieval Times brought against its workers union, Medieval Times Performers United. Like Trader Joe’s, the dinner-theater chain alleged its brand was being diluted.
Starbucks has also sued its workers’ union over their name and logo, filing a lawsuit against Starbucks Workers United in October.
Seth Goldstein, an attorney representing Trader Joe’s United, said it was “significant” that in this case Vera wrote the complaint was almost worthy of sanctions.
“This is a real victory,” Goldstein said. “Workers are just trying to stand up for their rights, and the court is tired of getting dragged into these types of ridiculous situations.”
The Stakes Have Never Been Higher