by Jim Di Paola
Arnold Abbott has stared down Fort Lauderdale police who threatened to throw him in jail for feeding homeless people on the beach. He’s fought city officials over his constitutional right to feed the homeless downtown. And recently, he suffered the loss of his best friend and partner, who died of a massive heart attack.
Despite the personal, political and legal troubles, Abbott’s Broward-based homeless charity, Love thy Neighbor, has never lost sight of its mission
Through it all, Love thy Neighbor has been able to cook and serve 1,100 meals a week to Fort Lauderdale’s down and out. It’s offered job and outreach programs to help the homeless climb out of their financial and emotional despair. The 10-year-old charity also has touched the lives of children with AIDS and others who are coping with devastating physical afflictions.
Now, it’s Love thy Neighbor that is in trouble. The charity is being financially choked by a legal mess so nonsensical that it makes even some veteran South Florida attorneys cringe.
Since 1998, Abbott says he’s been harassed by a reverend in Michigan who says Abbott’s charity has no right to the name Love thy Neighbor. The reverend, Catherine Sims, of Royal Oak, Mich., has filed a trademark infringement lawsuit in federal court against Abbott. Sims claims the name of Abbott’s charity sounds too similar to her jewelry business, Love Your Neighbor.
Sims is asking a federal judge to give her the trademark rights to “Love thy Neighbor” because the titular similarity to her Love Your Neighbor has resulted in “lost sales and profits.” She’s also asking for monetary damages, demanding that Abbott pay her for any profits he has accumulated through fundraising over the past 10 years.
The lawsuit is devastating Abbott’s charity, which operates on a $50,000 a year budget. So far, Abbott says he has spent about $13,000 on legal fees to Michigan attorneys he was forced to hire to defend himself from Sims’ lawsuit.
So far, the fees have eaten up all the money Abbott raised during an art auction this past March. The auction is one of only two fundraising events Abbott holds each year. (The other is a golfing event scheduled for September.)
“Because of the money we’ve been forced to pay lawyers to defend Love thy Neighbor from this ridiculous lawsuit, we only have $8,000 left for working capital,” Abbott says.
To put that in perspective, the $13,000 in legal fees normally would have been used to pay for about 34,000 meals for the homeless and working poor in Broward County.
Abbott can’t understand why the lawsuit was even accepted for consideration in the Michigan court system. “Love thy Neighbor Fund Inc. is an entirely different name than Love Your Neighbor,” Abbott says. “Nobody seems to understand that and that’s what I’ve been screaming about.”
Neither Sims nor her Michigan attorney, Julie Greenberg, would return phone calls. Even Abbott’s attorney, Amy Folbe, declined comment, saying her law firm doesn’t discuss open cases.
Abbott says Folbe filed a motion to throw out the case, claiming Sims cannot sue Abbott in Michigan because he lives in Florida. The motion is pending.
Having the case moved to Florida would prove to be a financial boon to Abbott’s charity because he has several lawyers in South Florida ready to defend Love thy Neighbor pro bono. But until that happens, Abbott is paying his Michigan attorneys about $1,000 an hour. “It’s a classic case of greed vs. need,” Abbott says. “It’s greed on [Sims’] part and need on our part.”
What’s even more confusing is the argument Sims and her attorney are making to secure the rights to the Love thy Neighbor name.
Sims, according to reports from National Public Radio and The Detroit Free Press, is a reverend who sometimes appears on public access cable and hosts a radio talk show. But the Free Press reported that Sims is not licensed in the state to solicit funds as a charity and that her business, Love Your Neighbor, sells “jewelry and trinkets.”
In those news reports, Greenberg said her client was being hurt by Abbott’s charity because his Web site brings it “right here in our back yard.”
Abbott says the argument that his Lauderdale Lakes-based charity could be hurting Sims’ sales in Michigan is baseless. “We haven’t ever collected donations from anyone out of Broward County,” Abbott says.
News of the lawsuit has inspired some local attorneys to advise Abbott on how to resolve it.
“I read about the lawsuit in the paper and know Mr. Abbott and know the good and courageous work his organization does in Fort Lauderdale,” says Andrew Kayton, a former ACLU attorney in Miami who now specializes in federal law at his Boca Raton firm, Schoeppl, Burke & Kayton. “As an attorney, I was outraged. And I think many people will recognize this is an outrage.”
Even a legal watchdog group in Sims’ home state has gone on record to chastise Sims and her attorneys for filing suit against Abbott. “This falls into the category of lawsuits that can be filed, but shouldn’t be,” says Robert Dorigo Jones, of the Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch.
Kayton agrees: “It’s not a black-and-white issue of whether the names are identical or not. It depends on whether there can be a confusion in the marketplace. That allegation in this case is ludicrous, but the plaintiff is entitled to her day in court.
“Unfortunately,” Kayton adds, “it costs a small nonprofit like Love thy Neighbor a considerable amount of money in legal fees.”
Until the federal court system recognizes that fact, Abbott will painfully watch Love thy Neighbor’s funds diminish.
“I recently was on the phone with my four attorneys up there and it cost about $1,000,” Abbott says wearily. “It’s been nothing but sheer aggravation.”
And heartbreaking. Abbott says he’s already cutting back on some programs that are crucial to helping Broward’s homeless, including the organization’s Homeward Bound program. Since August 1995, the program has helped about 200 homeless people get cleaned up and reunited with their families across the nation.
“During the past month, we’ve sent six people home,” Abbott says. “We’ve flown them everywhere from California, Texas and Arkansas.”
It was a crushing decision to put the Homeward Bound program on hold, but Abbott says it’s the only way Love thy Neighbor can survive.
Abbott, 76, started Love thy Neighbor as a tribute to his deceased wife, Maureen, who would seek out the homeless and give them whatever money she could. After her death, Abbott wanted to continue her generosity.
Being sued for trademark infringement is nothing that Abbott had ever conceived. It’s left the typically upbeat Abbott surprisingly bitter. “This woman is so underhanded and devious,” he says of Sims.
In his research to fight the lawsuit, Abbott learned that Sims has filed similar claims against a charity in Clearwater that helped rehabilitate drug addicts. That group also was called Love thy Neighbor Inc.
Sims threatened to sue Jennie Legendy, who was running the Clearwater operation. Like Abbott, Legendy was stunned to learn she was going to be sued in federal court. In March, Sims sent Legendy a curtly worded e-mail demanding she reimburse the $2,000 in legal fees Sims had incurred fighting for the Love thy Neighbor name. “My costs in this federal infringement matter ... have continued to grow at $275 an hour to my attorney,” Sims wrote to Legendy.
Abbott says once Sims began attacking him, the reverend tried to coerce Legendy into the fight. Sims wrote to Legendy that her lawsuit against Abbott would be more successful if she could prove Abbott was taking donations from out of the South Florida area.
In several e-mails, Sims told Legendy she would forgive the $2,000 bill if Legendy would act as a donor to Abbott’s group and then ship the receipts to Sims. “My attorney wants it as it proves [Abbott] is lying about taking money out of state,” Sims wrote in an e-mail to Legendy on March 30.
Indeed, Legendy did contact Abbott’s group and asked if she could make a donation and buy tickets for an upcoming fundraiser. But Abbott says he caught on to the ploy because the return envelope Legendy included for the tickets was addressed to Sims in Michigan. So, he rejected the donation.
“I’ve never gotten any money from out of state,” Abbott says. “When I saw the address, I assumed it was a trap and had a gut feeling it wasn’t kosher.”
Kosher or not, it now appears that Love thy Neighbor’s destiny is in the hands of the federal court in Michigan. The next step in the legal process will be to determine if Sims even had the right to sue Abbott in Michigan. Abbott’s attorneys have filed papers that argue if Sims wants to sue Love thy Neighbor, she’ll have to do it in Florida.
The decision on that request is still pending. In the meantime, Abbott will be stuck paying about $1,000 an hour to his legal team, and worrying how he’ll be able to continue filling the bellies of the county’s poorest residents.
To learn more about how to help
Abbott and Love thy Neighbor, call 954/484-4488 or visit www.lovethyneighbor.org.
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