By Scott Hervey
The City of New York has reignited the battle over the trademark TAVERN ON THE GREEN. Last month the City of New York filed a lawsuit for trademark infringement against Tavern on the Green International LLC, the successor-in-interest to Tavern on the Green operator, LeRoy Adventures, Inc. LeRoy Adventures operated Tavern on the Green from 1976 until approximately 2009 under a license from New York City.
In 1973 New York City and LeRoy entered into a license agreement for the operation of Tavern on the Green as a “restaurant and cabaret.” The license agreement provided that New York City had various rights over the operation of the facility, including approval of the manager, approval of employee uniforms, approval of use of signs or any other means of soliciting business, and the right to regulate the times and manner of operation. The City maintained the right of inspection at all times, and the City retained the right to terminate the license under numerous conditions, including unsatisfactory operations.
In 2009 when LeRoy and Tavern on the Green, LP lost a bid to renew the restaurant lease, they filed for bankruptcy protection and ceased operations. A fight over trademark rights quickly erupted. In 1978, LeRoy registered TAVERN ON THE GREEN with the United States Patent and Trademark Office for restaurant services. New York City filed suit seeking a declaration of its prior right under New York law to use the mark for its restaurant facility in Central Park, and to cancel LeRoy’s Federal trademark registration due to fraud on the USPTO.
In the lawsuit, the City established its own independent, common law right to the TAVERN ON THE GREEN trademark. Further, the City was able to show that LeRoy’s application to register the mark contained numerous misstatements and omissions of material facts, including the claim that 1973 was the date of first use when the City had used the mark for over three decades prior, and based thereon was able to cancel LeRoy’s registration on the grounds it was obtained fraudulently.
Ultimately, the City of New York, the bankruptcy trustee and Tavern on the Green International, LP entered into various agreements regarding the City’s ownership of the trademark and Federal registration and International’s right to use the mark. Specifically, the City and International entered into a “Use Agreement” in connection with International’s use of the mark for both products and restaurants outside of the City of New York. The Use Agreement restricted International’s use of the mark for restaurants within New York City and certain counties within the State of New Jersey. The Use Agreement included other restrictions on International’s use of the mark for products and services and included the requirement of a disclaimer.
On February 24, 2017 the City of New York sued International claiming that it breached the Use Agreement. Specifically, the City claimed that franchising material and other materials distributed by International failed “to use the disclaimers required by the [Use Agreement] on all products and promotional materials, by improperly trading on the goodwill associated with the City’s Tavern on the Green restaurant in direct violation of the [Use Agreement] and by falsely stating in promotional materials that it was a licensee of the City.” In the complaint, the City alleged trademark infringement and other related causes of action.
If the City can establish that International beached the Use Agreement, that such breach was not de minimis and the City complied with all applicable notice provisions, the City would be entitled to withdraw its consent to use the TAVERN ON THE GREEN trademark and pursue claims against International for infringement.
It is ironic that the impetus of the 2010 litigation is what provides the City with significant leverage in this current case. In the 2011 settlement with the bankruptcy trustee for Tavern on the Green LP, the City was assigned the Federal registration for TAVERN ON THE GREEN which was filed by LeRoy in 1978. With ownership of the Federal registration, the City has presumptive nationwide rights as of the date the application was filed in 1978. Had LeRoy not filed for Federal registration in 1978, the City’s trademark rights would have been based on common law and potentially geographically limited. As such, LeRoy or International’s use of TAVERN ON THE GREEN for a restaurant in Las Vegas might not be infringing.