Waiter, There's a Lawyer in My Soup
Austin attorney blasted for trying to extract money from several restaurants
Two weeks ago, Chicksports Inc. was an unknown entity headed by Mina Brees, an Austin lawyer who has lain low since her unsuccessful bid for a seat on the Texas Court of Appeals three years ago.
Today, Chicksports is out of business, and Brees, the mother of New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, is the target of widespread ridicule in the blogosphere after a July 28 Houston Chronicle story reported on her attempt to squeeze money from Houston restaurant owners by offering them the "opportunity" to purchase the rights to the name of their own business. Brees informed the owners that their names on file at the county clerk's office had expired, and Chicksports, as the new owner of these assumed names, was willing to sell them back to the restaurants – for a mere $20,000 or, in some cases, $25,000. She gave them until Aug. 14 to respond.
Two days after the story broke, Brees filed to dissolve Chicksports, according to secretary of state records. Brees did not return a phone call or e-mail requesting an interview. "She's not going to talk to you," her husband, Daniel Sowada, said. "She's already been assassinated by what's been reported." Sowada said Brees shuttered Chicksports "for personal and professional reasons."
Several Austin restaurants received similar letters, each one addressed "to whom it may concern." "When I got the letter from Mina Brees, the first thing I did was laugh," said Mark Paul, who co-owns wink and ZOOT restaurants with Stewart Scruggs. "The second thing I did, I picked up the phone and called my lawyer to make sure I was laughing at the right thing." His attorney assured him he was; then the lawyer, Todd Reed of the Jackson Walker law firm, fired off a sharply worded dispatch to Brees. "Your letter clearly indicates your misunderstanding of Texas state business law [and state and federal trademark laws]," Reed wrote, adding it "borders (if not crosses) the line of actionable conduct against you and Chicksports." Referring to the stir Brees had also caused in the Houston restaurant community, Reed described her effort to extract money as "nothing more than an unreasoned and unjustified form of extortion."
In Texas, businesses aren't required to file an assumed name if they've incorporated under the same name as their business. "Once you have the name, it's yours," said Glen Garey, general counsel for the Texas Restaurant Association. He said the TRA had also fielded calls from owners of three Austin restaurants – Chez Nous, Fonda San Miguel, and Carmelo's, the Houston location of which also received a letter. Garey suspects even more Austin businesses were targeted. "No one has anything to fear from that letter," he said. The TRA has posted an alert notice on its website, which begins with some sage advice: "DO NOT PAY."
The exact nature of Chicksports is unclear. The company incorporated in 1997 with Brees named as its registered agent and sole director, according to records on file with the secretary of state. A tax forfeiture notice was levied against the business in 2001 for failure to file a franchise tax report in 2000. Brees paid a $160 fine, and the company was reinstated in 2004, records show.
Brees' political campaign for the appeals court attracted national attention when her son demanded she remove him from her campaign ads. At the time, he told the Austin American-Statesman that his relationship with his mother was "nonexistent." Other news sources have reported that the mother and son had a falling-out over the NFL player's refusal to hire his mother as his agent.
Whatever reasons Mina Brees had for trying to gain financial benefit from assumed names, restaurant owners Paul and Scruggs, and likely others, still had to shell out money for legal counsel to deal with the hassle.
"As small-business owners, we spend lots of time and lots of money dealing with a lot of crap. This is just another speed bump," Paul said. Still, he's concerned that some business owners might have panicked and tried to settle with Brees. "Small-business owners are trying their best just to survive right now. And to have a predator come into their midst and distract them is: 1) unhelpful, 2) predatory, and 3) of questionable ethics. I'm disgusted that somebody would try to do that."