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Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Trademark case. At the end of the day, it doesn't appear to me that the the plaintiffs-appellants in Societe des Hotels Meridien v. LaSalle Hotel Operating Partnership, L.P., will end up with much in this litigation, but, hey, a win is a win. Meridien managed certain hotels owned by LaSalle pursuant to certain lease. The leases provided that if there was change of ownership of Meridien, LaSalle could buy out Meridien's leasehold interest in the properties at fair market value. There was such a change of ownership, and LaSalle tried to exercise its option. However, Meridien refused to cooperate, so LaSalle terminated the leases based on the default. Meridien then entered into an agreement with Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc. to manage the hotels.

Of course, Meridien sued. In fact, there were multiple lawsuits in various jurisdictions between Meridien and LaSalle. While this was going on, Starwood sent out a directory, which included the LaSalle hotels as hotels managed by Starwood even though Meridien was still in possession and managing the hotels. This brochure was the basis for this lawsuit.

LaSalle brought claims against Starwood under the Lanham act for false advertising and reverse palming off. The district court dismissed the claims. It held that the false advertising claim could not stand because nothing in the directory disparaged the quality of Meridien's product. It dismissed the reverse palming off claim because it held that the directories would create only a small likelihood of confusion, which, in any event, would benefit Meridien because Meridien would benefit from any sales generated by the directory.

The Second Circuit reversed. It held that Starwood, in publishing the directory, had drawn a direct comparison between its product and that of Meridien. In doing so, it used Meridien's product to sell its own product. Hence, Meridien had standing to bring a false advertising claim. The Court also noted that a false advertising claim can be based not only on false disparagement of a competitor, but on a misrepresentation of the quality of the advertiser's own goods. Hence, the complaint has stated a proper claim for false advertising under the Lanham Act.

With regard to the reverse palming off claim, while the Court noted that Starwood, at a later juncture in the litigation midhg prove that consumer confusion was unlikely, the fact that Starwood did not indicate in the directory that Meridien was managing the hotels was the hallmark of a reverse palming off claim. Because Meridien alleged that Starwood's directory falsely designated the services being provided at the hotels as being provided by Starwood, the complaint stated a proper claim.

It should be noted that Meridien lost its litigation with LaSalle relating to its leasehold rights to the property, so it is unclear how much it was damaged. I suspect a quick settlement will ensue, and nothing more will be heard of this case.

The decision can be found here.

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