A simmering legal conflict between popular veterans organization Team Rubicon Inc. and its global affiliate is out in the open after Team Rubicon Global moved to take the dispute public.
At the heart of the matter are several incidents of sexual harassment allegedly perpetrated by leaders of international spoke organizations licensed under Team Rubicon Global in 2019. When these incidents were not dealt with to Team Rubicon’s satisfaction, it severed its trademark agreement with Team Rubicon Global. TRG responded with a lawsuit.
That complaint has been moving through the legal system since March. But on July 31, TRG sent out a letter to all supporters on behalf of its board of directors describing the lawsuit and calling it a necessary step “to preserve the integrity of the Team Rubicon network.”
“To be clear, this isn’t about TRG against TR-USA. We are proud of the incredible impact created by TR-USA’s community of veterans, first responders, civilians and employees, and what we’ve accomplished together as a united Team Rubicon Network,” the letter states. “This lawsuit seeks to protect the volunteers who serve with TR-USA, as well as those from country units that TRG launched around the world.”
Team Rubicon, called TR-USA in the letter, contests that.
“This is a very unfortunate situation made even more so by TRG’s attempts to litigate this in public,” Jake Wood, a Marine veteran and the organization’s CEO and co-founder, said in a statement to Military.com.
Founded in 2010 after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake rocked Haiti, Team Rubicon seeks to help veterans by providing community and ways that they can give back through volunteerism and humanitarian work. Wood and co-founder William McNulty assembled a team to travel to Port-au-Prince to support earthquake relief; the organization has since deployed emergency response teams across the country and internationally.
In 2014, McNulty led the formation of TRG, described in court documents as “a legally separate nonprofit to focus on the exportation of the ‘Team Rubicon’ model to other countries.” TRG, which had a trademark use agreement with Team Rubicon, then licensed other countries to use the logo, allowing for the creation of TR-affiliates in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Norway.
The event that disrupted this arrangement was an alleged incident at Team Rubicon’s annual leadership conference in Estes Park, Colorado, in August 2019. A volunteer with Team Rubicon-Canada claimed she endured sexual harassment from the chief executive officers of the U.K. and Australia affiliate organizations. Citing the volunteer’s written statement of events, The Intercept reported in May that the harassing behavior included propositions of sex, unwanted touching and attempts to kiss her.
A Team Rubicon investigation into the claims determined they were credible, according to court documents. From there, the organization took quick action, writing to TRG in September and demanding a series of steps in order to keep the Team Rubicon trademark, including the termination of the CEOs, prohibiting them from participating in future activities, and barring them from contacting the victim.
According to an injunction decision delivered in May in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in May, TRG did not respond to that letter or a subsequent one in October, or provide evidence it was taking any of the steps Team Rubicon requested. In December, Team Rubicon informed TRG that its trademark and licensing agreement were being terminated. That got a response from TRG, saying that “certain, but not all, of the remedial measures outlined in [Team Rubicon’s] September letter” were being taken, according to the court.
The May preliminary injunction came after the court determined that TRG had continued using the trademark despite the termination notice and had “disseminated communications and advertisements insinuating that [Team Rubicon] is a subsidiary of TRG.”
“This evidence is sufficient to show that the imitative mark was adopted during the relevant period in bad faith,” District Judge Laura Taylor Swain wrote for the court. “For these reasons, Defendant has demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of its trademark infringement claim.”
TRG is currently using the Team Rubicon logo due to a temporary administrative stay issued by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.
While TRG declined to comment beyond its letter to Military.com, citing ongoing litigation, it states in the letter that some of Team Rubicon's requirements were unmeetable, and in particular that it couldn’t fire the CEOs under the relevant countries’ laws on the basis of “unproven, anonymous” statements.
It added that TRG had fully investigated claims of inappropriate conduct and found that the investigation done by Team Rubicon was “improper, biased, and done with ulterior motive.”
“Understanding the implications of a lawsuit, the TRG Board has worked hard over the past six years to avoid taking legal action against TR-USA,” the letter states. “But when TRG learned that TR-USA interfered with and prevented a major donor from supporting TR-[Australia] in their response to the Australian bushfires, the Board concluded that legal action was a necessary last resort to hold TR-USA accountable for its past and recent attempts to dismantle TRG and the independent network of country units around the world.”
In the lawsuit, TRG claims Wood contacted potential sponsors of the Australia affiliate personally in January 2020, resulting in the loss of at least $400,000 AUS in donations.
Likewise, Wood, the CEO of Team Rubicon, said his organization was forced into the action it took.
“We initially tried to settle this matter independently and privately,” he said. “However, TRG refused our offers to end our relationship amicably and instead thrust this issue into the courts -- where we have thus far prevailed.”
Team Rubicon leaders say the ongoing litigation will not affect the organization’s operations.
“Despite this attempt to distract us from our mission, TR has launched COVID-19 response operations in nearly 300 communities across America and Canada,” Art delaCruz, president and COO of Team Rubicon, said in a statement. “Preparations for responses to Hurricane Hanna and Isaias are also underway.”
Team Rubicon expects a ruling on the recent stay motion affecting trademarking before the end of the month.
-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.