Today, we filed suit against Noah Levine and three of his business entities in the United States District Court for the Central District of California. At the same time, we learned that Mr. Levine had filed suit for trademark infringement against our non-profit organization in the same jurisdiction. Our lawsuit is a public record and you can read it here. We expect both of these suits will be consolidated into one action. We know that you may have questions about this and we have scheduled two Zoom conference calls, on Wednesday at 5:00 pm Pacific, and Thursday 7:00 pm Pacific, so that the community can discuss this at length with Jean Tuller, our Executive Director, and Chris Kavanaugh, our Board Chair (you can find Zoom details at the bottom of this email).
Based on feedback we’ve received from our earlier statements about our part of this legal action, we’ve written this document to address the four most common questions we’ve encountered from the community.
1. What is this lawsuit about? Is it related to the sexual misconduct allegations?
The lawsuit filed by the board has nothing to do with the allegations of sexual misconduct against Mr. Levine. The topic is only briefly mentioned in our pleading to provide context. Long before we became aware of any allegations of sexual misconduct, the board of Refuge Recovery was deeply concerned about several conflicts of interest caused by Mr. Levine having copyrighted the book personally and having registered the name and logo for Refuge Recovery through his for-profit treatment center business. Under federal and state laws, a non-profit business cannot benefit (the legal term is “inure”) any one individual person or business entity, if they in any way control the nonprofit. The consequences for this could be fines and/or potential loss of non-profit status.
In addition, pushback from the community over Mr. Levine having taken on the position of the sole spokesperson and author of the text began almost immediately after the book’s publication in 2014, as this YouTube video from the first Refuge Recovery Annual Conference clearly demonstrates (https://youtu.be/c9VC6nWX7uw?t=2333). The criticism was driven by the concern that associating the Refuge Recovery movement too closely to any one individual exposes it to the risk that future damage to that person’s reputation might harm the community as a whole. A large percentage of the Refuge Recovery community has a 12-step recovery background, and this issue is one of the main justifications for their Tradition 12, which advises to always place principles before personalities. As seen on this video, Mr. Levine’s response to these concerns was to treat his role as a temporary one, even conceding that eventually his name needed to come off the book.
Shortly after the board was formed, we created the Asset Sharing Committee, which was tasked with resolving these issues contractually with Mr. Levine. At first, Mr. Levine was cooperative and he made assurances that these issues could be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. When the sexual misconduct allegations surfaced, the Executive Committee of our board asked him to step down as a director to protect the non-profit as much as possible under the circumstances, and he reluctantly agreed. The work of the Asset Sharing Committee then took on a sense of urgency.
Mr. Levine then started a new business called Refuge Recovery Retreats, and at the same time he began articulating a new vision for Refuge Recovery. His idea was that he would decide who could and could not offer retreats to our community. For those that wanted to but weren’t qualified, Mr. Levine would offer them teacher-training. In effect, this would create a Refuge Recovery lineage of teachers. This new vision of Mr. Levine’s created another enormous conflict of interest and directly contradicted a number of earlier statements he’d made to the Refuge Recovery board. In fact, Mr. Levine participated a few weeks prior in a meeting of our Teacher Committee to share his thoughts on how the non-profit should manage retreats and never once said he planned to unilaterally do the work himself for profit. We believe Mr. Levine’s action threatened the very existence of the non-profit. We explained our concern to Mr. Levine in July, and told him that if he didn’t reconsider using the Refuge Recovery name in this manner that we felt we had no choice but to take legal action to protect the non-profit. We gave him every opportunity to change his mind, but talks broke down in October.
The board is very sad that it has come to this. We very much would have preferred to resolve this dispute without litigation.
2. Who gave you the authority to make these decisions for the community? Shouldn’t you have asked our permission first?
Organizationally, Refuge Recovery is set up to be like AA and other 12-step recovery programs. AA is governed by its General Service Board. When Refuge Recovery became completely separate from Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society (ATS) in 2017, Mr. Levine asked two people to join him on the board, Jean Tuller and Chris Kavanaugh. At that time, Mr. Levine also hired Jean as the Executive Director. A few months later, the board was greatly expanded through a solicitation and application process much like AA’s, and today there are nine members. We have not added any additional board members since Mr. Levine left our board, so all nine of our current board were selected by Mr. Levine. Mr. Levine’s lawsuit against the Refuge Recovery non-profit is his attempt to delegitimize a board, consisting of nine people he hand-picked for the job, simply because he disagrees with them.
The board is a very diverse group of professionals, which includes:
- A major network producer in New York who was an editor for Random House,
- A treatment center CEO,
- An IT professional and past president of a Zen community,
- A manufacturer’s rep for the largest cosmetics company in the world,
- A theatrical production specialist for Blue Man Group,
- A tech entrepreneur and MBA with experience in intellectual property law,
- A retired CFO and Internal Auditor, who practiced law for 25 years,
- A government planner with a law degree from UC Berkeley,
- And Jean Tuller, our Executive Director, has a Master Degree in Public Policy, 35 years of management experience in nonprofits as well as state and federal government, and advanced business training from Harvard.
Non-profits are very different from for-profit businesses. Whereas for-profit boards usually serve the company’s shareholders, non-profit boards serve the general public. Being a director of a non-profit is a public trust. There are very strict laws about what directors of a non-profit can and cannot do (legally speaking these are “fiduciary duties”). These laws are usually enforced by either the IRS or the Attorney General’s office of the state where the non-profit operates. When an officer or director of a non-profit breaches their fiduciary duty, it can result in fines and the revocation of the charity’s non-profit status. Our lawsuit against Mr. Levine and his business entities details a lengthy history of Mr. Levine treating the non-profit like a personal business, and several acts that we believe were illegal breaches of one or more of his fiduciary duties.
As fiduciaries ourselves, once we became aware of these transgressions, it became our duty to use whatever resources we have available to remedy them. Initially, we hoped this could be done contractually, with Mr. Levine’s full cooperation. However, once Mr. Levine refused to cooperate, he put us in a position where we had no choice but to pursue judicial intervention. If we had not, this would be a breach of our fiduciary duty to protect the rights and assets of the non-profit. It not only would have been morally and ethically wrong, arguably we might have exposed ourselves to legal liability.
This is why we did not go to the community and ask permission before filing our lawsuit. We believe our duties as directors require us to proceed with this lawsuit.
3. Why not rebrand? Wouldn’t we be better off using these resources to just start over?
The problem with rebranding is that, upon investigation, we believe that under state and federal law, our non-profit organization has always been the rightful owner of the Refuge Recovery brand. Knowing that it is an asset of the non-profit, we are legally and ethically obligated to protect it.
Hundreds of individuals in our community have invested time, resources, and energy into creating value in the Refuge Recovery brand and name. In the relatively short time it has existed, the name and program of Refuge Recovery has become widely recognized, and we have a very real presence in the recovery field. It is our belief that rebranding would undo this progress; in fact, the basis of the lawsuit rests on the principle that the “brand” has value in and of itself, which is being diminished by the for-profit actions being undertaken by companies with the same name.
In addition, the legal issues that we are seeking to resolve don’t disappear with rebranding. They get more complex.
Say we decide we want to change our name to Rebrand Recovery, and we reach out to all the groups and encourage them to follow our lead. The hub of our community today is the web domain refugerecovery.org. Our communications with the community are via emails from that domain and web pages hosted at that domain. Mr. Levine’s lawsuit against us is meant to stop us from using that domain name on the grounds that we are infringing his company’s trademark.
If that went unchallenged, there would be two recovery programs: “Rebrand” Recovery, made up of all the groups that went with the rebrand, and Refuge Recovery, made of up all the groups that didn’t and all the future groups.
Consider the mission statement in our Articles of Incorporation, which reads that the purpose of our non-profit is:
“…to provide support for people suffering from all forms of addiction by facilitating an extensive and comprehensive network of Refuge Recovery groups. Support may include, but is not limited to, meetings, classes, conferences, and social networking.”
Notice it specifically says Refuge Recovery groups. In the rebrand scenario, is our legal and ethical duty limited to the community that goes with the rebrand? Or, does It extend to the future community of Refuge Recovery groups as well? Who are we obligated to serve? For all these reasons, and more, we believe that rebranding should only be considered as a very last resort.
4. Why should I care? I just want to go to a meeting with like-minded people. All this doesn’t affect me one way or the other.
The board of Refuge Recovery serves a vital purpose: quality control. The same is true for AA’s General Service Board. For example, if you go to an AA meeting in Belfast or Beijing, you expect certain things about it to be true. If a group claims they’re having an AA meeting, but the basic elements of an AA meeting aren’t present, someone will complain and the meeting will be delisted. For this to happen, the meeting needs to be listed somewhere and there needs to be a shared understanding of what the basic elements of a meeting actually are. For AA to be where they are now has required decades of outreach and education and very well thought out requirements built into their regional licensing. In addition, AA has a very careful and thorough process to develop, adopt, and distribute literature in support of its mission. In Refuge Recovery, we are just at the beginning of this process, but if our organization is not allowed to continue its work, the possibility is very real that the term Refuge Recovery could become completely meaningless, and if that happens, it might be very hard to find a meeting.
We hope that this discussion has helped to provide a better understanding of our current legal dispute with Mr. Levine. Please join our Zoom conference on Wednesday, or Thursday, or feel free to email Jean Tuller, Executive Director, at [email protected] or Chris Kavanaugh, Chair of the Board, at [email protected] with any questions or comments.
Refuge Recovery is a California Public Benefit corporation organized as tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the IRS Code.
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