LAKEWOOD RANCH -- A legal battle is brewing over the use of the Lakewood Ranch name.
In one corner is Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc., the developer of the massive mixed-use project that now is weighing whether to become a city. On the other side is a new realty firm led by a former employee of SMR’s real-estate arm.
They’re battling in federal court in Tampa over whether LWR Realty Inc. and its principal, Arthur B. Leopold, are infringing on SMR’s trademarks.
SMR says they are, and is suing for more than $75,000 in damages. Leopold and his firm say they’re not, contending SMR never trademarked the oft-used three-letter acronym for Lakewood Ranch and even tactily approved the firm’s name.
Parties and attorneys in the case either declined to comment or did not return telephone calls Wednesday and Thursday, but the dispute is clearly outlined in court documents.
SMR and its LWR Commercial Realty subsidiary sued LWR Realty and Leopold last October, accusing them of “willful and deliberate” trademark infringement and unfair competition and breaking federal anti-cybersquatting laws.
According to the suit, Leopold incorporated LWR Realty in June 2009 while still an employee of Lakewood Ranch Realty, SMR’s real-estate arm at the time.
SMR later sold Lakewood Ranch Realty to Prudential Palms Realty, which now operates it under the Prudential Lakewood Ranch Realty name.
The suit contends the LWR Realty name infringes on SMR’s trademarked “Lakewood Ranch” name, which the company registered in 1998. SMR also has used the “LWR” acronym under that trademark, the suit said.
LWR Realty’s website address, www.lwrrealty.com, also infringes on the trademark and violates the federal cybersquatting law, the suit contends.
“Prior to filing this suit, SMR notified and requested that defendants cease and desist using one or more of the SMR marks, and defendants have refused to comply with such request,” the suit said.
Leopold and LWR Realty argue in court papers that there’s no infringement because SMR never trademarked “LWR” or “LWR Realty,” nor has SMR gone after others who have used the “LWR” acronym for commercial purposes.
Leopold also contends a top SMR official knew of his firm’s name beforehand and even provided SMR photographs and videos for LWR Realty to use in advertising and on its website. The official is not named in court papers, but a news release issued by Leopold’s attorney identified him as Milt Flinn, president of LWR Communities, another SMR subsidiary.
Leopold did not return telephone messages Wednesday and Thursday and his attorney, Jack Merritt, of Sarasota, was not available for comment, his office said. SMR said Flinn would not be made available for comment.
On LWR Realty’s website, this disclaimer was posted -- in capital letters -- Wednesday: “LWR Realty located in Lakewood Ranch, Florida is a licensed independent real estate company in Florida and no affiliation to the SMR/Lakewood Ranch development or Lakewood Ranch Realty. Some images, marks, logos or content are proprietary to SMR/Lakewood Ranch and used consistent with owner’s permission.”
The news release also suggests SMR’s suit is retaliation for a complaint that Leopold filed with state regulators against Prudential Lakewood Ranch Realty and its broker/owner, Helen Sosso.
The complaint accused Prudential and Sosso of false and misleading advertising when they initially listed properties with the Sarasota Association of Realtors under the Prudential LWR Realty name, and not the firm’s legal name, following the acquisition from SMR, the release said. Prudential LWR Realty was never licensed nor registered with the state, the release said.
Sosso disputed that, saying she never used the Prudential LWR Realty name. The association sometimes shortened her firm’s name for space reasons, she said.
The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation “found just cause to investigate the complaint,” the release said.
Agency spokeswoman Sandi Copes said the agency has no record of any public complaints filed against Sosso or her company. Copes said the agency keeps complaints confidential unless probable cause is found.
“Because of the complaint and LWR Realty’s success in having SAR remove the Prudential LWR Realty name, it appears that Prudential Palms called SMR to file suit against LWR Realty for infringing the Lakewood Ranch mark,” the release said.
Sosso said she had nothing to do with the litigation.
“This is between him (Leopold) and SMR,” she said. “I’m just an innocent bystander here.”
In a statement, SMR called the news release “misleading and inaccurate” and a “desperate publicity ploy.”
“SMR is confident that the court will enforce SMR’s rights in its marks,” the statement said.
U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore has scheduled the case for trial in late April 2012, according to court records.
Duane Marsteller, staff writer, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.