Veil Piercing Under Lanham Act Requires Specific Showing of Liability
The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed a district court decision granting summary judgment of liability under the Lanham Act, finding that the plaintiffs failed to apply the correct standards for piercing the corporate veil and individual liability in a false advertising and false endorsement dispute. Edmondson et al. v. Velvet Lifestyles, LLC, Case No. 20-11315 (11th Cir. Aug. 4, 2022) (Jordan, Pryor, Marcus, JJ.)
Miami Velvet operated as a swingers’ nightclub in Miami, Florida. Miami Velvet was owned, operated and managed by Velvet Lifestyles, LLC. Joy Dorfman was the president, manager and a salaried employee of Velvet Lifestyles. My Three Yorkies, LLC, was the managing member of Velvet Lifestyles, and Dorfman was, in turn, the managing member of Yorkies. She was also the president of Yorkies and received the management fees that Velvet Lifestyles paid Yorkies. Approximately 30 individuals sued Velvet Lifestyles, My Three Yorkies and Dorfman for false advertising and false endorsement under the Lanham Act. The individuals alleged that Velvet Lifestyles, My Three Yorkies and Dorfman used the individuals’ images in advertisements without their consent, without any compensation and in such a way that implied they were affiliated with and endorsed Miami Velvet.
The district court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, finding that Velvet Lifestyles, My Three Yorkies and Dorfman’s use of the plaintiffs’ images constituted false advertising and false endorsement. The plaintiffs’ motion treated all three defendants as effectively a single entity, and the district court made no finding that either My Three Yorkies or Dorfman had any direct involvement in the advertising. The district court did not apply the individual liability standard to Dorfman and instead treated all three defendants as a single entity as the plaintiffs’ motion had done. A jury awarded damages at trial. After post-trial motion practice, My Three Yorkies and Dorfman appealed.
The plaintiffs argued on appeal that My Three Yorkies and Dorfman had not properly preserved these issues for review on appeal. The Eleventh Circuit rejected the plaintiff’s argument, finding that because the plaintiffs did not properly plead the standards for piercing the corporate veil and individual liability, My Three Yorkies and Dorfman were not obligated to raise or respond to those issues and, therefore, any procedural failures on their part were inconsequential.
Turning to the merits, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the finding of liability on summary judgment. The Court explained that in order for My Three Yorkies to be liable for the actions of Velvet Lifestyles, the plaintiffs had to show that My Three Yorkies was directly involved in the violation of the Lanham Act. The Court found that the plaintiffs failed to show that My Three Yorkies took any action regarding the management of the club or the advertisement in question, and that therefore the plaintiffs had failed to establish that the corporate veil should be pierced. The Court further explained that in order for Dorfman to be liable as an individual, the plaintiffs had to show that she actively participated as the moving force in the decision to engage in the infringing acts. The Court found that the plaintiffs failed to provide any evidence that Dorfman was involved in the Lanham Act violations, let alone the moving force. Accordingly, the Court set aside the jury’s damages award as to My Three Yorkies and Dorfman and remanded.
Practice Note: In Lanham Act cases, common ownership alone is insufficient to pierce the corporate veil. Specific facts must be pled to establish liability for all corporate entities. For individuals, in order to establish liability, a plaintiff must establish that the individual was a moving force behind the infringing acts.