Real estate agent and blogger Daniel Rothamel says he’s willing to give up his "Real Estate Zebra" moniker and shut down a website employing the name if real estate broker and trainer Denise Lones drops her trademark infringement lawsuit against him.
Lones, whose company provides marketing and other business services to real estate agents, filed the lawsuit against Rothamel on Feb. 22, claiming his use of zebra-themed imagery and trademarks was diverting business from her company, The Lones Group.
In her lawsuit, Lones said she has offered a publication known as "The Zebra Report" since 2005, and provided "blog services" since November 2006 using the mark, "The Zebra Blog."
Rothamel has not filed a formal response to the lawsuit in court. But in a letter to Lones that he also made available online, Rothamel denied the allegations against him, calling them "implausible and insincere" and "farcical."
Rothamel said that he remains "absolutely confident in my legal and ethical position in operating and maintaining RealEstateZebra.com," but does not want to subject himself or his family to a "long, protracted court battle 3,000 miles away from my home in Virginia."
Lones’ business is based in Bellingham, Wash., and she filed suit against Rothamel in Seattle, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.
Lones told Inman News that although she was "disappointed that Daniel continues to make (the legal dispute) so public" by posting his settlement offer online, the letter is "a great start" to resolving the lawsuit.
"We are going to respond to the letter, and we think it’s fantastic that Rothamel has reached out," said Derek Newman, an attorney representing Lones in the lawsuit. Newman said Rothamel’s letter opens the door for negotiation of a formal settlement agreement.
Rothamel, who did not respond to a request for comment, said in his letter to Lones that he was willing to stop operating the website he launched in October 2006, RealEstateZebra.com, and "cease referring to myself in media as ‘The Real Estate Zebra.’ "
He also promised to change his profile on social media websites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube if Lones drops her lawsuit, and "cease the use of zebra stripes in any marketing or media as it relates to my real estate-related activities."
Rothamel said his offer would have "no bearing in any way on my use of stripes in referee activities" — a reference to his work as a high school and college basketball referee. He has said his work as a basketball referee inspired his use of the zebra name and imagery.
Although Lones and Rothamel appear to be on track to resolving their legal dispute, the debate that it sparked online may have further repercussions.
Lones, who has said she’s been subjected to "a firestorm of retaliation" and "online bullying" by Rothamel’s supporters, said she plans to file ethics complaints against some of her detractors.
The Realtor Code of Ethics prohibits Realtors from "making false or misleading statements about competitors, competitors’ businesses and competitors’ business practices."
Lones said she "believes very strongly in free speech," and has "no problem that people support Daniel — that’s great." But Lones said she plans to bring ethics complaints against Realtors who she alleged were "willfully defaming me or trying to damage my business" in online forums.
Once the lawsuit against Rothamel has been resolved, "that is at the very top of my list, absolutely," Lones said.
Lones said she’s also lodged a protest with the National Association of Realtors over a blog post that Todd Carpenter, NAR’s director of digital engagement, wrote about the suit.
In the Feb. 28 post, Carpenter acknowledged that he is a friend of Rothamel’s and joked that he was "a member of this angry mob" criticizing Lones’ decision to file a lawsuit.
Carpenter advised Lones that "doing something magnanimous like dropping the suit with a humble blog post could do wonders" from a public relations standpoint.
The post, on Realtor Magazine’s "Speaking of Real Estate" blog, has since been removed.
On March 4, Hilary Marsh, managing director of Realtor.org, posted a statement apologizing if the blog post had "unintentionally misled readers or created the impression that the National Association of Realtors was taking sides or expressing an opinion about a private matter between two of our valued, and valuable, members."
Lones said today that Carpenter’s comments "were inappropriate, and they were extremely disappointing. NAR came out with a sincere apology. While I appreciate it, I have made it very clear to NAR that’s not enough."
Lones said NAR General Counsel Laurie Janik has contacted her and informed her that NAR is conducting an internal investigation. Carpenter referred questions to Janik. A NAR spokesman said the group had no comment.
Lones said she believes a group of people got together "to attack and destroy" and "crucify" her in retaliation for filing suit against Rothamel, who’s well known and liked among some real estate agents for his blog and appearances as a panelist and moderator at Inman News events.
"If you go to a hotel or restaurant and have a bad experience, that’s fair game" for critical online comments and reviews, Lones said. But she alleged that many of those passing judgment on her marketing expertise and business acumen had no direct knowledge of her work.
Some online commentators have suggested that Lones could have worked out her differences with Rothamel without getting lawyers involved.
In his letter to Lones, Rothamel complained that before Lones sent a cease-and-desist letter to him last July, "you never called me on the phone, e-mailed me, nor attempted in any way to communicate with me."
If Lones had contacted him directly, Rothamel said, "you would have learned conclusively that all of your concerns are unfounded, and could have been easily resolved with a simple discussion between us."
Newman, Lones’ attorney, said such disagreements often escalate when parties attempt to resolve them without lawyers to advise them. Lones said that she was left with little choice but to file suit, after Rothamel’s attorney responded to her cease-and-desist letter by denying its factual allegations and legal conclusions.
Since news of the lawsuit was first reported in a Feb. 25 Inman News story, the reaction has been "intense," Lones said.
"This started on Feb. 25, and it has not stopped. Every single day, we are pummeled with bad press," Lones said. "First, you are in shock … Now, I’m at the point where (I’ve decided) someone needs to stand up against this, and I guess I’ve been chosen to do it. I wouldn’t want this to happen to anybody."
Rothamel said that if Lones wanted to accept his offer to settle the lawsuit, she needed to provide written confirmation by 5 p.m. Wednesday. Newman said Lones would respond by the deadline, but that an actual settlement agreement would probably take longer to finalize.
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