Real estate lawsuit pits Situs vs. Situs

A Texas commercial real estate consultancy is suing a local brokerage over the rights to use the name they both share.
On Dec. 21, Houston-based Situs Inc. filed a federal lawsuit in Indianapolis against Greenwood-based Situs Realty Corp. Houston’s Situs alleges it has owned and used the name Situs “for many years.” The term Situs is Latin for “location” or “site.”

As plaintiff in the suit, Houston’s Situs seeks an accounting and award of the local firm’s profits under the Situs name and cancellation of its registration rights to the moniker.

Jennifer Uschold, a spokeswoman for Houston’s Situs, declined IBJ’s request for an interview or comment. According to its Web site, Houston’s Situs was formed in 1985. It has international offices in London, Berlin, Frankfurt and Tokyo as well as domestic branch locations in New York, Boca Raton, Fla.; Robbins N.C.; Montgomery Ala.; and Little Rock, Ark. Its listed real estate services include asset management, loan servicing and brokerage.

In its lawsuit, Houston’s Situs alleges the Greenwood company applied for federal registration of its name on March 29, 2006, resulting in a registration on Jan. 23, 2007. Keith Stark, Situs Realty Corp. principal, said he conceived the name far earlier, back in 1989 when he was a University of Illinois student studying urban economics and a member of a real estate fraternity. He formed his company in 1999, and said he’s always used the Situs name.

Stark said he went through a very expensive and time-consuming legal process to properly register the Situs brand, including the federal government’s mandatory waiting period during which others can attempt to contest name rights. Stark said Houston’s Situs never challenged his registration until it initially tried to press its lawsuit in Texas courts earlier this year.

“I intentionally went out and got the trademark for a reason. I have owned it and the rights to Situs for the entire lower 48, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and whatever. And [Situs] didn’t show up when the world was put on notice,” Stark said in a telephone interview.

“If they wanted to contest it, they should have done that six or seven years ago,” Stark added. “It’s no longer up for discussion.”

Stark said he’s offered to sell Houston’s Situs rights to the name, but the company declined his terms, which he wouldn’t disclose other than to say his price is “a lot.” Stark said he’s considering a countersuit to stop the Houston company from using the Situs name.

“I told them, ‘make me an offer, buy it from me,’” Stark said. “They didn’t want to do that.”

Greenwood’s Situs Realty is perhaps best-known for its leasing work at Hamilton County’s 750-acre, mixed-use Saxony Development. It also helped develop Greenwood’s Brandywine Crossing and Greenfield at the Crossing shopping centers. Before the recession, it had eight employees and was the city’s 19th-largest commercial real estate brokerage, according to IBJ’s 2007 book of lists. But Stark said the economic downturn has taken a heavy toll on his company, as it has on most everyone in real estate. Situs does not appear in later IBJ rankings.

Today, Greenwood’s Situs Realty has just two employees, including Stark. Because bank lending is so difficult to secure, he said, his company had to set aside all its pre-recession commercial real estate development plans. Today, the business’s focus is backfilling existing shopping centers with retail tenants and helping banks dispose of underperforming real estate assets they’ve obtained via foreclosure.

“So many companies haven’t been able to weather this significant storm, which started mid-2007,” Stark said. “And here we are walking into 2010 and the skies haven’t cleared yet.”

Since the two companies operate in different geographies, Stark said, he wasn’t aware until recently of Houston’s Situs. He said he suspects the Texas company is suing now because, although it’s always been a real estate consultant, it recently expanded into the brokerage business.

“They’re contesting the trademark to see if they can find an ‘I’ that wasn’t dotted or a ‘T’ that wasn’t crossed,” Stark said. “All I can offer them is good luck. It’s a matter of law and very clear.”

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