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Ruling comes in 'Avanti' trademark legal fight

A trademark can be an important business representation.

Use of the name "Avanti" has been involved in a local legal battle for nearly a year. In late December the U.S. District Court ruled the name is owned by the original people who brought it to Hudson in the late 1980s - a group headed by Nancy Lawton-Shirley.

The ruling means the former Avanti Center (742 Sterbenz Drive) in Hudson, will undergo a name change. Friday, Jan. 20, the firm became known as St. Croix Therapy. A letter to that effect has been mailed to customers.

Local attorney Brent Johnson of Lommen Abdo Cole King Nelson and Stageberg represented the Avanti Center.

"My clients are disappointed that the court ordered them to stop using the word 'Avanti,'" Johnson said in a written statement. "However, they have fully complied with the order. They renamed the organization 'St Croix Therapy, Inc.,' and will continue to offer and provide therapeutic services for children and adults as they have done for the past 25 years. They remain committed to serving the community going forward."

Carol Skinner represented the winning side of the legal battle. She is a local attorney with Skinner & Associates who specializes in employment and trademark law. She recounted the time line that led to legal action.

"The first use of the 'Avanti' name came with Patricia Wilbarger who offered the first Camp Avanti in California in 1983," Skinner said.

The camps served children with learning disabilities and/or sensorimotor disabilities. Under the Avanti model, the best occupational therapists would attend a week-long camp and work with the children. Camp activities included teaching skills to other OTs so they could transplant the Avanti expertise to other parts of the country.

"Two Hudsonites, Nancy Lawton-Shirley and Irene Richter, attended the camp in California and brought the training back to Hudson and started the first local Camp Avanti in 1989 at the YMCA Camp St. Croix. She soon began the non-profit Research and Development in Pediatric Therapy (RDPT) which was operated by a board of directors. She was also involved in a for-profit Special Children's Center. In 2006, all the entities merged and the therapy projects continued, but under a bigger board of directors.

Although reluctant to talk about it, Skinner indicated that there was some issue with the board and some new hires. By 2010, the face of the organization had changed dramatically. A new director was hired, some people were fired and soon, Nancy Lawton-Shirley departed and took her Camp Avanti out of Hudson and re-opened it at YMCA Camp Icaghowan in Amery.

The Hudson group continued to operate and continued to use the "Avanti" name, changing its name to "Avanti Center." That's where the dispute began. The Avanti Center continued to operate what they called a "Camp Avanti" at the Hudson Camp St. Croix.

"They operated a camp, but it became more of a recreational camp at first because all the nationally-renown therapists withdrew," Skinner said. "Meanwhile, the true Camp Avanti was now in Amery, but operating without the 501©3 designation - which meant no grants and little income."

Essentially, the original Camp Avanti that moved to Amery had no ability to raise money and they had lost their location at Hudson's Camp St. Croix.

The two sides argued over the use of the "Avanti" designation and the now Hudson-based Avanti Center filed the first legal action, represented by Johnson. Skinner soon filed a counter-suit on behalf of the Nancy Lawton-Shirley group.

The legal decision was handed down Dec. 21 by District Judge Barbara Crabb.

Crabb wrote:

  • The plaintiff (Avanti Center) could produce no evidence that Avanti founder Wilbarger stopped using the "Avanti" name at any point.
  • The defendant (Lawton-Shirley group) produced undisputed evidence that Wilbarger granted licenses to Lawton-Shirley and Richter.
  • The judge also discounted a plaintiff argument that Wilbarger, Richter and Lawton-Shirley failed to disclose a verbal licensing agreement between them.
  • It is undisputed, the judge said, that the plaintiff's (Avanti Center) use of "Avanti" was not first or exclusive.

    Next step

    Skinner said the Lawton-Shirley group is entitled to some sort of compensation. A trial is scheduled for Feb. 27, but she hopes a settlement can be reached before then.

    "There are a few remaining claims and potential damages, but I hope the trial can be avoided," Skinner said.

    Skinner said the Lawton-Shirley group should be able to recover the money from lost grants in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

    "That would probably be about $50,000," Skinner said.

    She acknowledged that neither side has a lot of funds and is hoping the sides can agree to some sort of payment plan.

    "It's not our desire to put them out of business. They provide a good service," Skinner said. "We hope both organizations can move forward to serve kids."

    She is also hopeful that the Lawton-Shirley group can return to Hudson in the future to stage Camp Avanti at Camp St. Croix.

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