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The name Truist sparks lawsuit against BB&T, SunTrust. Truliant claims trademark infringement.

Truliant Federal Credit Union is suing BB&T Corp. and SunTrust Banks Inc. in federal court over their proposed brand name of Truist.

The Truliant trademark infringement lawsuit was filed Monday in the Middle District of North Carolina.

The legal action came less than five days after the super-regional banks unveiled Truist (pronounced TRUE-ist) Financial Corp. — to mixed reviews — as the name for their combined holding company and Truist Bank for the retail brand.

The banks announced Feb. 7 that BB&T would acquire SunTrust in a $64 billion megadeal and that the combined bank’s headquarters would be in Charlotte.

BB&T shareholders will own 57% of the new company. The banks will hold separate shareholder votes on the deal in September, at which time only BB&T shareholders will vote on Truist as the brand for corporate by-laws reasons.

Even though the lawsuit involves two financial institutions based in Winston-Salem, Truliant is not pulling any legal punches. It is requesting compensatory and punitive damages.

“Defendants have taken advantage of and sought to trade upon the reputation and goodwill developed by Truliant and ‘Tru” trademarks ... and to capitalize on the market created by Truliant for its Truliant services. Defendants’ acts were committed with the reckless disregard of Truliant’s rights.”

Truliant is requesting a jury trial. It wants the banks to be prevented from moving forward with marketing Truist at retail or online, including applying for Truist trademarks. BB&T applied June 11 for five sets of trademarks with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office.

BB&T and SunTrust could not be immediately reached for comment. The banks have only disclosed Truist as a brand, waiting to unveil a logo, signs, colors and stock ticker symbol closer to the closing.

Truliant claims the banks are attempting to piggyback on Truliant’s brand efforts since it debuted in June 1999, particularly in the Triad and Charlotte where there is significant retail and operational overlap.

The credit union said allowing Truist in the retail marketplace has the potential to cause “irreparable injury to Truliant and to its business, reputation and goodwill.”

“This is a clear infringement on our name, and their proximity to our main business region will confuse consumers and undermine the trust we have built in our institution,” Todd Hall, Truliant’s president, said in a statement.

“As a member-owned cooperative and community leader, it is very important for consumers to be able to make this distinction.”

BB&T and SunTrust said Truist was chosen from what the banks and global marketing firm Interbrand said were “thousands” of choices. Free defines Truist as “unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.”

“Truist is the first signal of our bold future together,” the banks said. “It reflects a shared belief in building a better future for our clients and communities.”

The banks’ goal is closing on the $66 billion megadeal in September or October.

However, analysts have said getting federal regulatory approvals could stretch into early 2020 given concerns expressed by, at the least, U.S Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

As a result, it could be late 2020 or early 2021 before Truist could appear as signage on branches.

Brand equity

Truliant took its name in 1999 following the successful federal credit-union industry effort in August 1998 to expand membership beyond mostly one corporate client. Prior to the name change, Truliant was known as AT&T Family Credit Union.

The credit union claims Truist infringes on its trademark, particularly the use of “Tru,” and the potential for consumer confusion between the two brands in the marketplace given their overlap in branches in the Triad and Charlotte markets.

Truliant cited in the lawsuit claims of trademarked product and services names such as: Truliances, Tru-Financial Checkup, Tru2Go, Truguidance and #TruCommunity. The 62-page lawsuit contains several examples of Truliant marketing with the emphasis on the “Tru”

“Truliant’s branches, marketing, products and services are branded with this name, in addition to other names and taglines that include the ‘Tru’ prefix,” Hall said. “Truliant has considerable brand equity in its Truliant and ‘Tru’ family of trademarks.

“By using a name that is very similar to our Truliant brand name and other ‘Tru’ family trademarks, SunTrust and BB&T will be trading on the equity we have built. Truth, trust and reliability are hard-earned values that we are not willing to give away.”

BB&T filed for five sets of goods and services trademarks on June 11 with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

They are trademarks for mobile apps for: banking services; employee benefits; financial and insurance services; education and training services; and providing use of online non-downloadable software for use in accepting credit card, debit card and ACH payments, and for access to banking and online business services for administration of financial transactions

BB&T and SunTrust are going on the marketing and social media offensive with the unveiling of Truist.

However, the initial social media reaction suggests the banks face a challenge in finding many fans of the name.

A check of social-media comments in the three markets directly affected by the proposed merger — Winston-Salem, Atlanta and Charlotte (newspaper and Facebook) — shows a significant amount of panning Truist at first glance.

Man missing after going into Winston Lake, authorities say

A person fishing on Winston Lake reported Monday that another person went for a swim but never resurfaced.

Winston-Salem Police said they received a call at 10:24 a.m. about the incident. Emergency personnel, including a water-rescue team, responded to the lake.

D.S. Sawyer, a Winston-Salem Fire division chief, said the missing person is an adult man. Sawyer said there is an eyewitness who spotted the man going into the lake.

“He was seen running and jumping into the lake and swimming around,” Sawyer said.

The eyewitness said he did not see the person come out of the water.

Sawyer said the man’s clothes were found on the bank of the lake. They did not include identification, he said.

Emergency crews from Winston-Salem, Lewisville and High Point searched the lake for hours, using sonar, which can detect objects underwater.

The sonar equipment got a few hits, Sawyer said, but a dive team from High Point did not locate a body, Sawyer said.

A water-rescue team searched the lake until 8 p.m. Monday, checking the shorelines for the victim, said Battalion Chief Ricky McCutchen of the Winston-Salem Fire Department.

“It is just hard to find an area to search when you don’t know exactly where the person went down,” McCutchen said.

The search will resume at 8 a.m. today, McCutchen said.

Swimming is not allowed in any city lake and signs are posted with that information, said William Royston, the director of the Winston-Salem Recreation and Parks Department. The lake is 18 feet at its deepest.

Taxes going up in Winston-Salem: Owner of $150,000 house will pay $956.10 next year, up $60

The Winston-Salem City Council approved the 2019-20 budget on a 7-1 vote Monday night, with Council Member Dan Besse following through with his promise to oppose the budget.

The Winston-Salem budget totals $496.4 million and sets the tax rate at 63.74 cents for every $100 of taxable property. That’s a 4-cent increase over the current rate, but the increase arises totally from the city’s need to finance $122 million in bonds approved by the voters in 2018.

Besse wanted another penny added to the tax rate so that employees could get a merit pay increase averaging 2% and paid starting in August.

But no other council member would go along with the idea, so Besse’s motion to that effect died for lack of a second. Besse then made a motion to roll back a pay adjustment for council members that went into effect in April.

That motion, too, got no support, so Besse voted against the budget.

Besse argued that the city had just finished an intensive effort to bring up employee pay to the levels paid in other major N.C. cities, and couldn’t afford to slip back.

Besse said Greensboro, High Point and Charlotte are all giving their employees 3% merit increases and that Durham is paying a 4% increase.

“If we pass the budget without pay increases, we will immediately start to fall back into that hole,” Besse said.

But Council Member D.D. Adams appeared to be speaking for the other council members when she said that the city needed to hold the line on taxes, given the increase for bonds.

“I wish all of us could wave a magic wand,” Adams said. “This council committed itself to ensuring that we would not raise any of the taxes other than those for the bonds.”

With the new rate of 63.74 cents, the owner of a $150,000 property will pay $956.10 in city taxes, up $60 from the $896.10 paid under the current tax rate of 59.74 cents for every $100 of taxable property.

In other action, the city approved the purchase of four acres from Bethel United Methodist Church off Burke Mill Road as the site of a new fire station, but balked at the proposal made by the church to share use of a meeting room that would be built for training at the fire station.

The church had proposed discounting the price of the four acres by about $71,000 in exchange for using the meeting space as a fellowship hall for the church, which is right down Bethel Methodist Church Road from the site of the proposed station.

The property was appraised at about $281,000, but the city was going to get it for around $210,000 with the discount.

But some council members were saying Monday that they were wary of getting into a long-term arrangement with the church, and asked whether it would set a precedent.

The city is now willing to pay full price for the land, although city administrators said they would have to go back to church officials with a revised deal to see if the church is still willing to sell.

Analysts say Truliant has significant challenge with Truist lawsuit

Truliant Federal Credit Union faces a significant challenge to winning a trademark-infringement lawsuit against BB&T Corp. and SunTrust Banks Inc. over the Truist brand, according to analysts and industry officials.

Truliant filed its lawsuit Monday in federal court in Greensboro — less than five days after the banks unveiled Truist Financial Corp. as the proposed parent company and Truist Bank as the retail brand.

The credit union claims the banks are attempting to piggyback on Truliant’s brand efforts since its June 1999 debut, particularly in the Triad and Charlotte where there is significant retail and operational overlap.

It says allowing Truist in the retail marketplace has the potential to cause “irreparable injury to Truliant, and to its business, reputation and goodwill.”

The lawsuit is an understandable defensive move for Truliant, said Justin Nifong, a patent attorney with NK Patent Law at its Winston-Salem office.

“Truliant has a duty to police its mark,” Nifong said. “Otherwise, it loses its exclusivity in the marketplace.”

Nifong said Truliant’s challenge will be proving there is, or will be, confusion among consumers between its products and services and those offered by Truist. Truliant claims in its lawsuit that the impact is already being felt.

“There is a certain sophistication with how consumers choose a financial institution compared with going to a grocery store and potentially confusing Dr. Pepper with Dr. Perky,” Nifong said.

“They are likely going to take their time researching from whom they are getting a loan, an account with.”

Nifong said Truliant’s legal position may come down to the strength of its brand in the marketplace compared with the strength that BB&T and SunTrust would bring to Truist. Truliant has more than $2 billion in total assets, while a combined BB&T-SunTrust under the Truist brand would have $442 billion.

“How many “Tru” brands are there in the financial services industry?” Nifong asked. “The more there are, the less exclusive its claim of exclusivity will be.”

An online search came up with several “Tru” financial services brands, including: TruMark Financial Credit Union in Pennsylvania; TRU Financial Services Inc. of San Diego; Tru Financial Group of St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada; TruFund Financial Services in New York; Tru Insight Wealth Advisors in New York; and TruWealth Financial in North Dakota.

BB&T and SunTrust said Truist was chosen from what the banks and global marketing firm Interbrand said were “thousands” of choices. Free defines Truist as “unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.”

“Truist is the first signal of our bold future together,” the banks said. “It reflects a shared belief in building a better future for our clients and communities.”

Nifong said consumers “are attracted to the Tru prefix because it is associated with trust and honesty.

“Obviously, there are a number of financial institutions who believe that is the case,” Nifong said.

‘Same first syllable’

The fact that Truliant is pursuing a lawsuit with a jury trial this quickly into the Truist unveiling is not surprising, said Roger Beahm, executive director of the Center for Retail Innovation at Wake Forest University School of Business.

“It is understandable Truliant might have reservations about (Truist) because they both use the same first syllable,” Beahm said.

Beahm said pursuing a jury trial “likely stems from a belief that a protest to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office alone, who would be granting the mark, would likely not agree with their concerns.”

“Most trademark rejections come from companies trying to use the same word while competing in a similar or related category,” Beahm said.

Beahm said among Truliant’s challenges is that Truliant and Truist are different words.

“Truliant has no dictionary definition,” Beahm said. “It is, in a sense, an invented word.”

“Truist, on the other hand, is actually a real word with a dictionary definition, with connotations that BB&T and SunTrust would love to associate with its services.”

“It seems BB&T and SunTrust feel there is sufficient difference between the two names that it’s worth the risk to proceed with applying for trademark protection on the new name,” Beahm said. “They obviously believe the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will agree.

Tony Plath, a retired finance professor at UNC Charlotte, said trademark and brand lawsuits “are quite common in the banking industry, and usually they’re settled long before they ever go to court.”

Free publicity?

Truliant did not take long to launch a marketing campaign targeting the proposed BB&T-SunTrust merger after it was announced Feb. 7.

The lawsuit could be a way for Truliant “to get free publicity,” comparing its services and homegrown standing with a bank leaving its Winston-Salem headquarters to form the sixth-largest U.S. bank, said Chris Marinac, research director for Janney Montgomery Scott LLC.

“In my experience, credit unions can play dumb like a fox,” Marinac said. “They really don’t care about Truist; they want to advance their own name.”

Truliant spokesman Heath Combs said the credit union declined to comment on that speculation.

Marinac said the lawsuit could "give\ credibility to the Truist name."

"It might open some eyes on Wall Street who complained that the name should be something different. While BB&T does not desire a legal skirmish, anything to boost the new brand is a side benefit."

Zagros Madjd-Sadjadi, an economics professor at Winston-Salem State University, said the key issue could be whether Truliant and Truist would be considered to be in the same industry.

“It might sound as though they are because they seemingly compete, but Truist will argue that banks and credit unions offer fundamentally different products and that the laws governing each would mean that they cannot actually compete as much as Truliant is going to argue that they do.”

“Even still, I agree that this is something that should be of concern to Truist Bank.

“One more hurdle for Truliant is that the two names appear quite different, so if they have not conducted an actual consumer survey that demonstrates brand confusion, they will face a really tough mountain to climb to prove their case.”

DA says Innocence Commission wastes our money. Commission says the truth is valuable.

A dispute over the innocence of a Winston-Salem man convicted of killing a 65-year-old woman in 1985 is heating up between Forsyth County’s top prosecutor and the leaders of the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission.

Last week, the Innocence Inquiry Commission announced that it had unanimously voted to have a three-judge panel review claims that Merritt Drayton, also known as Merritt Williams, had no role in the murder of Blanche Bryson on Dec. 10, 1985, in her Gilmer Avenue home. Another man, Darren Johnson, has been charged with Bryson’s death because of new DNA evidence. He also told investigators with the commission that he strangled Bryson in her home and that no one else was there when he committed the crime. He is in custody in South Carolina and awaiting extradition.

Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill blasted the decision and accused the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission of wasting taxpayer money in investigating Drayton’s claims of innocence in both the Bryson case and another case — the 1983 death of Arthur Wilson outside an illegal drink house. Two other men — Sammy Mitchell and Darryl Hunt — were also implicated in Wilson’s death, thanks largely to statements Drayton made to police. Hunt was exonerated in 2004 in the death of Deborah Sykes, a copy editor at the former afternoon newspaper, The Sentinel. Mitchell and Hunt were both convicted in the Wilson case, but Hunt was later acquitted in a second trial. Both men have since died.

Drayton was ultimately convicted of the murders of Bryson, Wilson and a third person, Mary Smith, whom police said Drayton pushed down a flight of stairs. He is serving two life sentences with the possibility of parole, plus 10 years.

“I hope that this case and this defendant, who qualifies under the FBI definition of a serial killer, will serve as perhaps the most egregious example of why the legislature must act now and review the state-funded Innocence Commission and their free-wheeling expenditure of our taxpayer dollars,”O’Neill, who is running for N.C. Attorney General, said last week.

Lindsey Guice Smith, executive director of the innocence commission, said in a statement on Friday that the commission is not a waste of taxpayer dollars. The commission’s goal is the truth and not results, she said.

“The arrest of Darren Johnson is a direct result of the information uncovered by the Commission’s investigation,” she said. “That investigation came decades after the police interviewed Mr. Johnson, accepted his answers, and closed any case against him.”

A Winston-Salem police detective interviewed Darren Johnson in 1988 after a co-defendant in the case, Robbin Carmichael, identified Johnson as the other person who participated in breaking into Bryson’s house. Johnson denied any involvement, but confessed during a March 2019 deposition with the commission’s investigators. Both Carmichael and Johnson said they didn’t know Drayton at the time and Drayton did not participate in the break-in.

Drayton, however, confessed multiple times to police and in court hearings that he was involved in breaking into Bryson’s house. He always maintained in all his statements that he did not kill Bryson himself. But he also implicated a number of people in the break-in and in Bryson’s death. None of the people he named was Johnson.

Prosecutors believe it is possible that Darren Johnson, who said he was on LSD at the time of the murder, could have acted in concert with Drayton in the break-in and that the two men didn’t know each other’s real name.

O’Neill didn’t back down Monday on his criticism of the innocence commission.

“After spending many tens of thousands of our hard earned tax-payer dollars, forcing local law enforcement to expend countless hours of research as well as numerous hours of prosecutorial resources, this is the sum total of what we have learned from the N.C. Innocence Commission: that when Merritt Drayton confessed to law enforcement more than 30 years ago, testified under oath to participating in the breaking and entering of Blanche Bryson’s home leading up to her murder, and then apologized in open court for his involvement, he was also telling the truth that it was another man that actually strangled Ms. Bryson during that fateful night,” he said.

“For the numerous people that Merritt Drayton confessed to playing a role in murdering, he is where he needs to remain: behind bars for the rest of his life.”

Ted Richardson 


David Rolfe