Divorce Center seeks separation - from Divorce Center

Posted: April 30, 2013

The New Jersey Divorce Center offers help with low-cost, simple divorces.

So does the NJ Divorce Center.

The New Jersey Divorce Center sells its services on its website, with a distinctive black background, royal-blue type, and an eye-catching headline that scrolls across the screen from right to left.

So does the NJ Divorce Center: Black background, blue type, scrolling headline, right to left.

Here's one difference:

The New Jersey Divorce Center, headquartered in Pleasantville with offices in Cherry Hill, is the plaintiff in a trademark lawsuit filed in federal court in Camden this month.

The NJ Divorce Center is the defendant.

In the suit, the New Jersey Divorce Center says the NJ Divorce Center's use of the words divorce center is a trademark violation, "likely to cause confusion, to cause to mistake or to deceive."

The company wants the NJ Divorce Center to give back every dime it has made as a result of the use of the name.

"What else are we going to call ourselves?" sputtered Grace Brown, who works with her daughter, paralegal Michelle Brown, owner of the NJ Divorce Center, based in Deepwater, Salem County.

"That's what we do," she said. "It's a common name."

Greg Lastowka, a professor who teaches trademark law at Rutgers University Law School in Camden, said the case would be a good one for his students to examine.

"There's a lot of stuff going on here and it's a pretty close call," he said.

Companies, he said, can't trademark a common name, or even a common description. For example, a fruit vendor who sells apples can't expect to have exclusive use of Apple Inc. But, a computer company - well, that's a different story.

Going back to apples, a company might describe its fruit as "sweet and crunchy," although that description would fit most apples, he said.

But, over time, if sweet and crunchy becomes associated with just one company's apples, then Sweet & Crunchy Inc. could apply for and defend those words as a trademark.

"Essentially, you get a monopoly on those words," he said.

The lawsuit says the New Jersey Divorce Center did receive a trademark for divorce center, meaning it now controls those words, even if they once had a common, descriptive meaning.

" Divorce center is a weak trademark," Lastowka said, perhaps open to challenge on the common meaning of the phrase.

But, he said, judges are more inclined to find a trademark infringement if there are other indicators, such as similarities in "trade dress," the legal term for marketing materials.

How will the judge view the websites of the two divorce companies?

Brown said it was all a nonissue.

The NJ Divorce Center's website was an off-the-shelf, do-it-yourself model, she said.

Soon, she and her daughter will change it, along with the name, she said, perhaps to the SJ Divorce Center, and "that will do away with this whole . . . mess."

Neither the New Jersey Divorce Center's corporate agent, Richard Kramer, nor other company officials could be reached for comment, despite many attempts to reach them through the business and its lawyer.

Brown said her company didn't need to trick customers into contacting it. "We have more business than we can handle," she said, adding that most clients come through word of mouth.

"We provide services for the working poor," she said. They can't afford lawyers, she said, and Legal Services of New Jersey, which helps low-income clients, doesn't do much family law.

At a time when modest, relatively uncomplicated divorces can cost in the $20,000 range for lawyers' fees alone, it's no wonder there's demand for companies like the two divorce centers.

Both say they can help process forms that bring the tab down to about $500.

They aren't lawyers, they say, but paralegals accustomed to the legal forms required for uncontested divorces.

And both have to walk a tightrope - providing minimal help while not running afoul of a New Jersey law that makes it a criminal offense to practice law without a license. "They can provide the forms, but the forms don't explain how to resolve parenting issues or how much child support should be paid," said Carl Viniar, a Rutgers-Camden law professor who runs a mediation practice and who teaches family law.

These types of businesses have attracted scrutiny from the New Jersey Supreme Court.

In 2004, the court's Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law issued an opinion that businesses offering help preparing and filing do-it-yourself legal paperwork should stick to typing and transcribing. Advice on filling in the forms could be the "unauthorized practice of law."

But given the costs, divorcing couples in New Jersey find themselves with few alternatives, and price is a key marketing point for the companies.

"Do I need a lawyer for an uncontested divorce?" the New Jersey Divorce Center asks in the questions part of its website. "No. The Divorce Center will type your divorce papers, according to your instructions, and the papers will be filed with the Court. You may use a lawyer . . . if you own a lot of property and can't decide how to divide it, but that is very expensive."

Kimberly Mutcherson, a Rutgers-Camden family law professor, understands the appeal.

"It's absolutely the case that there are not a lot of low-cost or free options for people who want to end their marriages," she said. "The question is whether this is the best option."


Contact Jane Von Bergen at 215-854-2769.

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