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Lawrence nonprofit that hired homeless forced to close over trademark suit

Posted at 6:00 PM, Oct 20, 2016

A Lawrence nonprofit has been forced to close up shop after a company out of New York sued over trademark infringement.

Shine Adams started Sun Cedar in his basement two years ago. He officially filed for bankruptcy and closed production last month.

“The wind was out of my sails. I spent about a week bellyaching about it and staying home,” he said. "It never occurred to me that this kind of abstract approach to symbols could be … made into such a huge deal."

Sun Cedar carved many shapes and emblems out of cedar wood blocks. After their first year, the business moved into the back of Penn House, a Lawrence nonprofit that helps low-income individuals and families. Their biggest success was cedar tree-shaped cutouts used as air fresheners.

The business quickly grew into a successful nonprofit that hired nothing but people who were in financial distress, those who were homeless or those who were transitioning out of prison. Each person was paid $15 per hour.

"The ideal person was someone who's been out of work for a while,” said Adams.

Business was good, until they got a cease and desist letter.

"We received a letter saying that we infringed. I consulted a very prominent, intellectual property attorney who said we had not,” said Adams.

Car-Freshener Corp. (Watertown, NY) filed a lawsuit against Sun Cedar. Adams initially cut down his staff in order to fight the lawsuit, but even with a pro-bono New York attorney he eventually had to give up the fight. Adams said he eventually tried to cease production of the cedar tree-shaped cut-outs, but by that point it was too late.

"We were trying to get away from the tree shape. We have no interest in continuing to make tree shapes,” said Adams. "It wasn't adequate to end the lawsuit that we just stop making trees."

Sun Cedar’s product was a cedar tree-cutout made of cedar wood. Car-Freshener Corp.’s product is an evergreen tree-cutout made of paper. To Julie Scott, a Kansas City attorney who specializes in trademark lawsuits, the case isn’t a surprise.

"If you own a trademark you are required to enforce it so that people don't get confused. If you don't do that it's a really big stick, you lose it,” said Scott.

Steve Lopes, a senior board member for Sun Cedar, said there were rumors of a possible partnership. He said that wasn’t the case.

"This air freshener company goes after anybody who's remotely close to their trademark and they're unrelenting,” he said. "There was never an opportunity for us to partner. This company was out to crush us, from the start. We had a good thing going and all of a sudden we got sucker punched by this."

Abraham White Weasel is a former Sun Cedar employee who was homeless for years before getting the opportunity to work in Adams’ shop.

"I felt like nobody would just give me a chance at all and I wanted to prove myself,” he said.

Now, just like 17 other former employees, White Weasel is looking for other opportunities.

"All this company is about is just to help people. And then you got this big company over here that just has their own mindset of wanting money and their own profit and they don't really care about anybody else,” he said.

Adams, who works full-time at Lawrence Community Shelter, is adamant about not giving up.

"This is not a sad story. This was a bump in the road. But I'm not giving up. I know exactly what I want to do with my life and I'm gonna do it,” he said. "When the dust settles from the lawsuit and when the bankruptcy is finished, I fully intend on starting another organization like Sun Cedar."

41 Action News reached out to Car-Freshener Corporation for comment regarding the lawsuit. Their reply was “no comment.”

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Josh Helmuth can be reached at josh.helmuth@kshb.com

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