Small change helps Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan reach agreement on trademark

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published February 23, 2018

 Maggie Varney, founder and CEO of Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan, cuts hair to make a wig for a child.

Maggie Varney, founder and CEO of Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan, cuts hair to make a wig for a child.

Photo by Kristyne E. Demske

 Wigs for children are on display at Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan in  St. Clair Shores.

Wigs for children are on display at Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan in St. Clair Shores.

Photo by Kristyne E. Demske

ST. CLAIR SHORES — Two organizations with similar names have reached an agreement that will allow them both to continue to help children living with hair loss.

Wigs for Kids Inc., a nonprofit national organization based in Ohio that provides hair replacement and support for children with hair loss, filed suit for trademark infringement against Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in May 2017.

According to the complaint, Wigs for Kids was incorporated in Ohio in 1993 and helps 125-150 children each year by collecting monetary and hair donations for the purpose of making custom wigs at no cost for children suffering from hair loss. Its name and design were trademarked in 2007.

The complaint alleges that shortly after Maggie Varney, of St. Clair Shores, began Wigs 4 Kids in 2003, Wigs for Kids founder and Executive Director Jeffrey Paul contacted her and asked her to change the name of her organization to prevent confusion. Instead, the complaint alleges that Varney agreed to help only children suffering from hair loss in the state of Michigan and to allow Wigs for Kids to continue its mission helping children across the country.

“Over 10 years ago, we had contacted her and said, hey, we had a breach of our trademark,” said Paul. “We agreed to have a working agreement that she would work just in Michigan. It went fine for a couple years, but then confusion started a lot.”

“I was not aware that they even existed and, obviously, we did a name search,” Varney said in an interview Feb. 20.

She said she had only confined her search to Michigan, however. The first time that Wigs for Kids sent her a cease and desist letter was right after she began operating in a 560-square-foot space on the side of a building without a sign, she said. Her attorney reached out to the Ohio organization and told them that Wigs 4 Kids only wanted to serve children in the state of Michigan.

By agreeing to only work with Michigan children and adding “of Michigan” to the organization’s name, Varney said she didn’t hear from the Ohio group again until Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan moved to its current location on Harper Avenue in St. Clair Shores in 2010.

“By that time, I had worked with the kids long enough. I realized that they needed more than just a wig,” she said. “They needed to heal emotionally — psychologically and emotionally.”

She said her vision included a wellness center that provides creative outlets, therapy and counseling services, tutoring, self-empowerment and yoga classes, and social activities for the children in need of Wigs 4 Kids’ services. She felt that differed enough from Wigs for Kids.

“They came after us again because they saw that we were expanding,” Varney said. “My attorney contacted them; it was the same thing. We said, look, we have a storefront and a building now, but we’re still going to be serving children in Michigan. Again, they went away.”

At that point, Varney said, she thought both organizations could coexist. She said that over the years, she has received hair donations that were meant for the Ohio group (she knew because the donations arrived with a form from Wigs for Kids instead of her group’s form), and has always forwarded them back to the organization in Ohio.

Varney said that one time, Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan also got a check for a monetary donation. But when she didn’t recognize the donor’s name, she looked it up and realized that it was a company from Westlake, Ohio, where Wigs for Kids is located. She called and asked the donor if the donation was meant for the Ohio group and forwarded the check back to them when she was told that it was.

“It’s the right thing to do,” she said. “I don’t want their hair and I don’t want their money. That is not the right thing to do.”

The complaint filed by Wigs for Kids alleged that Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan had been the recipient of a donation meant for the Ohio organization in 2012, and also that a donation of hair from a pro wrestler was misrepresented by Varney in an interview with a blog, “Pro Wrestling Sheet,” as having been made to Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan.

Varney said that she was contacted by “Total Divas,” which was going to film the donation of the hair of pro wrestler Daniel Bryan.

“They contacted me and asked if I would be interested in receiving this wrestler’s hair for our program,” she said. “I said, ‘Oh my gosh ... How did you hear about us?’”

She said that “Total Divas” representatives told her that they had researched groups where the wrestler could donate hair upon retirement, and they liked the mission of Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan. The show sent Varney a contract, she said, and she signed it, but then called them back to decline because she didn’t want a national show to promote Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan when she could not help children outside of the state of Michigan.

“I said, ‘Why don’t you contact Wigs for Kids?’” she recalled. “I can’t help kids nationally, and I don’t want kids calling me and I have to turn them down.”

Paul said that there was confusion in the media when the story was reported, and that just convinced him to again contact Varney about his trademark.

Varney said that the pro wrestling blog writer wanted to interview her before “Total Divas” had decided to which organization the wrestler would be donating hair.

“At this point, I didn’t know if we were getting the hair or they were getting the hair. It wasn’t settled; I still had this signed contract,” she said.

“The last thing that I wanted to do (was) go to court, but they had already established” themselves, Paul said. “The trademarks are clear. It was too close.”

After nearly a year in court, the two organizations have reached a settlement to allow Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan to continue its operations in Michigan by adding the word, “Maggie’s” to its name.

“I’m extremely excited and appreciate how the resolution came about,” Paul said.

Although Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan has committed to only helping children in this state, it has received 17,455 hair donations from 58 countries around the world.

“We can still accept hair donations, and people can still support us financially around the world if they choose us. We can’t solicit them, and we don’t,” Varney said.

Varney said her organization also turned over records of every donation that has ever been made to Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan, and the donor that Wigs for Kids alleged sent a check to the Michigan group that was intended for the Ohio group was not a donor recorded by Varney’s organization.

“When they provided us with the name of the donor, and the amount, it’s not even in our system,” said Jennifer Fisher, development director at Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan. “We never even got it.”

She also pointed out that there are other groups operating under a name that includes “wigs for kids,” including Wigs for Kids BC in British Columbia, Michelle Marie’s Wigs for Kids in Washington, and Free Wigs for Kids in New York.

“We’re the only one they were attacking,” Fisher said.

Paul said that he speaks and teaches all over the country, and that some other Wigs for Kids organizations have been opened up by his students and are certified Wigs for Kids groups. An online search turned up some of those organizations as well, like Wigs for Kids in Ontario.

“We had no other confusion with any other organization,” Paul said. “It’s just to stop the confusion of a donor that’s entrusted their hair or money, that it’s going where they want.”

Under the agreement, Varney has 90 days to fully change the name of her organization to Maggie’s Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan. She said she does not know at this point how much it will cost to do so.

The lawsuit has cost about $20,000 for Wigs 4 Kids of Michigan to fight, but Varney said that no donations meant for Wigs 4 Kids were used to pay for legal fees. Instead, she asked her board of directors and honorary board to provide the revenue if they wished to fight the complaint, which they did with personal donations made specifically for the purpose of supporting the legal action. In addition, Varney said that the law firm of Kirk, Huth, Lange and Badalamenti donated 60 percent of their legal services.

“When this all started ... I was devastated, and I said I will not spend one dime of the organization’s money that people have entrusted me with to put wigs on kids’ heads on attorney fees,” Varney said.

A settlement conference held Feb. 14 led to the agreement to the name change.

“It was a good settlement,” Paul said. “It’s a good agreement.”

He said he wants to be friends and work with Varney going forward.

“When she puts her new sign up, I’m going to come up there. We want to be able to help her in any way to help more kids,” he said.

Varney said she will continue to operate as she has in the past, and will continue to forward donations of hair and money meant for Wigs for Kids to Paul’s organization.

“I believe that Jeffrey Paul of Wigs for Kids in Ohio is a decent and honorable man who ... did this to protect his organization,” Varney said. “I think he felt threatened, and when he saw that we were no threat to his organization ... that’s why he, too, we both, came to the table wanting to resolve this.”