Iowa advocates for the mentally ill face off in court over ‘unfair competition’ claim

By: - October 8, 2021 1:03 pm

A Des Moines organization that advocates for the mentally ill is accused of trademark infringement, unfair competition, false representation, and false advertising. (Photo from U.S. District Court filings.)

A dispute over how Iowans’ charitable contributions are used has led to a court battle between advocates for the mentally ill, with a Des Moines organization accused of unfair competition.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness, a Virginia-based nonprofit, is suing Mindspring Mental Health Alliance, an Iowa nonprofit known for years as the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater Des Moines.

The two organizations once worked in concert with each other, but differences over the way charitable contributions are spent prompted the Des Moines group to sever ties with NAMI in February. NAMI is now accusing the Des Moines organization of trademark infringement, unfair competition, false representation, and false advertising.

NAMI, which is the largest mental health advocacy organization in the United States, has more than 600 local affiliates and 48 state organizations that try to raise awareness of mental health issues and provide services to those with mental illness.

In 2015, the Des Moines corporation named Mindspring entered into an affiliation agreement with NAMI in an effort to pursue the national organization’s agenda in central Iowa. At that point, Mindspring adopted the name National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater Des Moines.

The Des Moines organization surrendered its affiliate status eight months ago, but has allegedly continued to use NAMI’s identity and its trademarks in an effort to promote its own services.

NAMI alleges, for example, that Mindspring continued to identify itself as the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater Des Moines and, for a few months at least, continued to use the website and make use of NAMI trademarks and the NAMI logo.

NAMI also claims the Des Moines group has repeatedly staged event and webinars tagged with the NAMI-trademarked brand, made use of NAMI’s mailing lists, and posted NAMI-owned videos to the Mindspring YouTube channel.

NAMI alleges that these and other acts are likely “to deceive purchasers as to the source of Mindspring’s products or services,” and have been undertaken with an intent to deceive consumers.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction that would prevent the Des Moines organization from marketing or selling any products under NAMI-owned trademarks. In what could lead to the creation of an entirely new Des Moines affiliate using the NAMI of Greater Des Moines name, the lawsuit also seeks to have the Iowa organization surrender any corporate name registrations that reference NAMI.

Mindspring has yet to file a response to the lawsuit but on its website, the organization posted a message to supporters saying it is “shocked and saddened that an organization that we have held in such high regard for so many years has elected to take such an extreme action against a small volunteer-led organization with a shared mission … Sometimes we are hurt by people we love.”

With regard to the two organizations’ going their separate ways, the message says that over time, confusion had developed regarding the manner in which “funds that are donated to each organization are used and for what purpose.” It says the Des Moines board of directors has maintained a strong commitment to “providing our supporters with transparency about how their charitable contributions are used. After careful consideration, our volunteer board determined that we could not meet our commitments to donors and the community in the context of the NAMI agreement.”

Once the two groups parted ways, Mindspring says, volunteers worked on update the website and other materials to remove references to NAMI. “We’ve really been doing our best to get rid of that name,” the message says, “but it keeps popping up places … We would love it if they would create a new NAMI affiliate in Des Moines, but we aren’t crazy about them using our old name. We think that would confuse a lot of people and feel that it would be better if they just chose something new.”

The message adds that “some of our volunteer board members and our staff are really scared about what it means to be sued in federal court by people we thought were our friends.”

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.