Answers Pet Food (Lystn, LLC) sent retail partners a letter on Tuesday regarding its ongoing litigation with Kure Pet Food (Initial, LLC), the new company led by Answers co-founders and still owners Jacqueline Hill and Roxanne Stone. Whether you sell Answers or Kure or both or neither, you’ve likely heard that the companies are battling each other in court over “trade secrets” and “intellectual property.” Also in the legal mix is the buyout of Hill and Stone’s shares in Answers.
Upon receipt of the letter written by Answers attorney Allan L. Sodomsky, retailers who carry Kure began asking each other on social media whether or not they could get in legal trouble for selling the products, pointing to this section:
In its Order the Trial Court has explicitly stated “Pending a final hearing on the merits, or until further Order of this Court, Initial is enjoined and prohibited from manufacturing, distributing and/or selling raw and/or fermented pet food products competitive to those sold by Lystn Companies, including raw fermented goat’s milk, raw fermented meat products, raw kefir, fermented bone broths and stocks, fermented tea/Kombucha, and/or raw cheese, intended for animal consumption.”
The letter continues:
It should be specifically noted that from the date of the Superior Court’s Order reinstating the Trial Court’s Opinion and Preliminary Injunction (November 10, 2021), it is UNLAWFUL to sell, purchase for sale to the public or hold for sale any products manufactured and/or distributed by Kure Pet Food (Initial, LLC) as listed above. Any violation of this Order will be referred to the Court of Common Pleas of Berks County, Pennsylvania and, if found to have occurred, will result in the imposition of sanctions.
The Court has said it will enforce this Order anywhere in the United States, and it has many sanctions available to do so for those who violate it.
You can read the full letter and court orders at the Answers Beyond the Bowl website. The letter also linked to the court documents.
I reached out to Sodomsky and asked if Answers would be monitoring whether stores were selling Kure products and was told no, that the courts would have to determine whether stores are in violation of the order.
I also contacted Hill and Stone for a response to the letter. Stone said, “Distributors and retailers are free to sell and distribute the Kure products they currently have in their inventory and on their shelves,” and shared the following from Initial attorney Joel A. Ready:
“The Injunction Order from the Judge, which is intended to hold the ‘status quo’ of the case until the full legal proceedings can be heard, orders that Initial, LLC cannot sell further products to distributors or third parties pending further Order of Court. This Order did not bind any third parties, including distributors or retailers, as they are not parties to the litigation. They can sell what is in their possession at this time. The assertion from Answers in an email claiming that Kure products are illegal to sell in the United States is untrue and is not based on the Court’s Order. If anyone has questions about this, they are welcome to call my office at 610-926-7875, or to email me directly as counsel for Initial, LLC, the manufacturer of Kure.”
Hill and Stone also shared the following press release regarding the ongoing litigation:
Trinity Clean Foods and Initial LLC Press Release:
Answers Pet Food is attempting to inhibit 25 Amish farms from the distribution, sale and manufacture of their own independent farm products from the pet food market.
In an attempt to stifle its biggest competitor, Answers Pet Food has launched an aggressive lawsuit against Kure Pet Food and against its own founding members Jacqueline Hill and Roxanne Stone, asking a Pennsylvania court to shut Kure Pet Food down forever, prohibit Jacqueline and Roxanne from working in their industry, and put 25 Pennsylvania farmers out of business.
After a 12-day hearing and a gross misrepresentation of the facts, Judge Benjamin Nevius of the Berks County Court of Commons Pleas, has granted Lystn LLC (dba Answers Pet Food) an injunction against former Lystn officers and co-founders Jacqueline Hill and Roxanne Stone and Initial LLC (dba Kure Pet Food).
This case is about the freedom to work. Five non-party farmers, who formed Kure Pet Food, plus 20 ancillary farms that provide them with raw goat milk are prevented from selling their products in competition with other raw pet foods, as a result of the injunction initiated by Answers Pet Food. Basic, non-exclusive products such as raw cheese, raw goat milk, kefir, fermented vegetables, and fish bone broth are being qualified as “trade secrets” exclusively belonging to Answers Pet Food rather than the farmers who used their own training and experience to develop and produce these products as independent suppliers in their own manufacturing facilities.
The independent farmers used their own funds to develop their own manufacturing facilities over the past 15 years. Recently, they determined the need to form their own company to ensure the stability of their products within the pet food marketplace. These same farmers continued to supply their products to Answers Pet Food simultaneously, until Answers Pet Food commenced suit against them along with Roxanne Stone and Jacqueline Hill. It was only then that these farmers ceased selling their products to Answers Pet Food.
It was proven during the trial there is no agreement between Answers Pet Food and the independent farmers who formed Kure Pet Food in the nature of noncompetition. And it is worth noting that these 5 farmers were never employees of Answers Pet Food. Transcripts from the hearing reveal the admission on the record from the Answers Pet Food counsel that there is no specific trade secret asserted by Answers Pet Food against Kure Pet Food but instead they proceed on a partisan theory that the “whole package” or “whole process” is somehow a trade secret. Answers Pet Food’s theory of misappropriation of trade secrets, in substance, is a disguised noncompetition argument without any basis in a contract.
None of the trial court’s findings point in the direction of any illegal or prohibited activity on the part of Kure Pet Food or Stone and Hill and shows disregard for Pennsylvania law favoring a free market and even federal law, such as the Sherman Act, prohibiting price fixing. The trial court’s opinion of the case commits several errors of law and meets the abuse of discretion or capricious disregard of evidence standards.
Answers Pet Food claims that the 25 independent farms supplying Initial LLC (Kure Pet Food) will be kept in business despite the injunction placed on Kure Pet Food (and thus public interest protected) because Answers Pet Food will simply buy the milk and produce from these farmers. However, when the offer was extended on October 26, 2021, to follow through on that promise they have not responded and have made no effort to purchase any raw milk from these farmers. This failure of Answers Pet Food to accept the pending offer to purchase the goat milk and vegetables from the farmers conclusively shows that the non-party goat milk and vegetable farmers will have their businesses destroyed.
Lastly, the trial court found that Answers Pet Food had breached their own LLC operating agreement by not actively pursuing a valuation of the company and following through with their purchase of Stone and Hill’s shares. Therefore, as a matter of law, the record shows that Lystn, LLC (Answers Pet Food) unjustifiably breached the buyout of Stone and Hill’s ownership interests and before there was any competition. Furthermore, the noncompetition provision under Lystn, LLC’s operating agreement is inapplicable to dissociated members, such as Stone and Hill, and it is otherwise unenforceable.
Through their preliminary injunction Answers Pet Food will not be successful in restoring the status quo but rather they are using the preliminary injunction as a weapon against a competitor. Thus, the injunction will not help Answers Pet Food, as competition is not the problem here.
Answers Pet Food cannot have it both ways, where they use a preliminary injunction as a weapon to destroy their competition rather than ostensibly protecting their own business.
This case is pending review in the Superior Court of Pennsylvania for reconsideration of the trial courts order denying Stone, Hill and Initial LLC the petition for a stay.
I will continue to update this story as it develops, both on the legal front as it relates to retailers and on the future availability of Kure products. If you do have Kure products currently in stock and want to get a third legal opinion on the matter, reach out to your business attorney.