Things get ugly between Michigan, Ohio cancer wig charities

They both supply free wigs to kids with cancer.

One group is in Ohio, the other in Michigan.

But after 14 years of coexisting, things have gotten ugly between the two charities that do nice things for children -- and they're about to get uglier.

To the chagrin of St. Clair Shores-based Wigs 4 Kids, a federal judge in Detroit this week refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Ohio nonprofit, which wants the Michigan group to stop what it's doing until it changes its name.

The Ohio group is called Wigs For Kids, and claims that Wigs 4 Kids is intentionally  trying to confuse donors into thinking the two groups are the same, and, has twice deceptively accepted money and publicity meant for the Ohio group. In one instance, the Ohio group claims, a famous wrestler donated hair to their organization, but the Michigan group got all the credit in the media and never corrected the mistake.

Wigs For Kids also claims that it once lost out on a "sizable donation" that mistakenly went to the Michigan group because of the name confusion. 

The Michigan group is crying foul, claiming the lawsuit is "outrageous" and should be dismissed.

"This is outrageous that a nonprofit organization would sue another nonprofit organization," Wigs 4 Kids founder and CEO Maggie Varney has previously said. "There’s nobody to benefit from this ... We have done nothing wrong."

U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds, however, has  allowed the lawsuit to proceed.

"It is undisputed that (Wigs For Kids) first adopted and began using the 'Wigs for Kids' mark a decade before (the) defendant and is therefore the senior user," Edmunds wrote in her order Thursday, later adding: "The similarity in the (two) businesses suggest the potential for confusion for consumers."

Here, according to court documents, is what the two kids charities are feuding over.

Wigs 4 Kids is 14 years old and provides wigs only to children in Michigan --  about 300 kids a year.  The Ohio group is 30 years old and helps 125-150 children a year from around the country. It also has a U.S. trademark for its name and logo "Wigs For Kids." The first trademark was issued in 1999. A second one was issued in 2007.

In between, the Michigan group was formed.

In 2004,  the Ohio group asked the Michigan group to change its name because of the confusion. In response, Wigs 4 Kids agreed to service only kids in Michigan and add "of Michigan" at the end of its name.

But problems arose.

In 2012, the Ohio group alleges it lost out on a "sizable donation" from a potential donor who inadvertently sent the money to the Michigan charity due to the name confusion. Wigs For Kids claims it never recovered the money.

Then came a media snafu involving a famous wrestler who donated his hair to make a child's wig. The story went viral in wrestling circles -- only the Michigan charity got all the publicity when it was the Ohio group that received the wrestler's hair, the lawsuit claims.

According to the lawsuit, in February of 2016, a film crew taped retired WWE wrestler Daniel Bryan getting his hair cut and donating his famous locks to the Ohio charity for a TV show called "Total Divas." But when the media and blogs picked up the story, including Wikipedia, the reports stated that the wrestler gave his hair to the Michigan charity. In one instance, the lawsuit claims, the Michigan group's founder gave an interview to a pro wrestling blog about the donation and pretended it was her group that received the famous hair.

In March of 2016, Wigs For Kids sent Wigs 4 Kids a cease and desist letter.

Wigs 4 Kids refused.

A year later, the Ohio group sued in federal court, alleging trademark infringement and unfair business practices.

"Plaintiff is now seeking to avoid confusion and protect its goodwill and
reputation," the Wigs For Kids lawsuit states. "Defendants’ acts, in particular the continued infringement after full notice of Plaintiff’s rights, have been committed with the
deliberate intent to cause confusion, mistake and to deceive."

Varney, Wigs 4 Kids founder and CEO, has blasted the lawsuit, calling it a waste of time and money.

 According to Varney, Wigs 4 Kids has "honored its commitment" of only servicing kids in Michigan and -- as a standard practice -- has referred out-of-state inquiries to the Ohio organization.

Attorneys for both organizations were not readily available for comment.

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© 2017, Detroit Free Press


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