Tortious Interference on Parks and Recreation: How Rent A Swag Can Fight Back Against Tommy's Closet

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[Parks & Recreation is the best comedy on TV these days, so in honor of its new season, I've taken a look at one story issue that's been bugging me since last season's finale.  Enjoy!]

Tortious interference occurs when a person intentionally damages the  business relationships of another.  Parks & Recreation occurs at 8:00pm, Thursday nights on NBC.  The former is a type of civil liability imposed on one party who financially harms another party.  The latter is an exceptionally sweet and intelligent sitcom that none of you are watching.  What do the two have in common?  A lot, surprisingly.

Last season, Tom Haverford - played by Aziz Ansari as a pop-culture obsessed, clothes horse, mogul wannabe - started a business called Rent-a-Swag, a store where the "teens, tweens, and in-betweens" of Pawnee, Indiana could rent "the dopest shirts, the swankiest jackets, the slickest cardigans, the flashiest fedoras, the hottest ties, the snazziest canes and more!"  Per the store's fake website, "before you waste your money on something that won't fit in a month, or fight with your parents over that sick velvet blazer they won't buy for you - step into Rent-A-Swag."  It's a good idea, right?

Anyway, the business took off and Tom was thisclose to leaving his job at the Parks and Recreation Department.  Unfortunately, Tom discovered that a competitor opened a rival store directly across the street called Tommy's Closet.  The competitor (whose identity I won't reveal here) informed Tom that Tommy's Closet was designed specifically to drive Rent-a-Swag out of business.

I don't know how the Parks & Recreation writers intend to resolve the situation (it will likely be sweet and goofy), but if I was Tom's attorney, I would advise him to sue the pants off (hehe) the owner of Tommy's Closet.  In tort law, there's something called tortious interference with an expected economic advantage and it gives business owners a way to stop those who maliciously attempt to drive expected consumers away from their business.  To win, Tom would have to prove that:

  1. Tom had a reasonable expectation of economic benefit from the operation of Rent-a-Swag,
  2. The competitor had knowledge of that expectation,
  3. The competitor intentional interfered with Tom's expected economic benefit, and
  4. Tom suffered economic damage as a result of the interference.

It wouldn't be very entertaining to watch, but Tom would most assuredly win a lawsuit against his competitor.  First, Tom had a good reason to expect an economic benefit; he was already receiving it!  His business was booming during the tail end of Season 5.  Tom was even able to hire employees and pay dividends to his stockholders.  Second, the competitor told Tom (in front of other people, I might add... witnesses!) that he was aware of Rent-a-Swag's financial success.  In fact, during the Season 5 finale, he tried to buy Rent-a-Swag from Tom because it had become a known moneymaker.  Third, the competitor admitted his desire to drive Tom out of business out of a misplaced sense of revenge and was actively luring customers away with free pizza and prizes.  Finally, we see in the Season 6 opener that Tommy's Closet had succeeded in drawing customers away from Rent-a-Swag; the episode shows Tom alone in his store, all the customers having fled across the street.  Tom has clearly suffered an economic damage.

While these kinds of malicious actions are rare, they do happen.  Therefore it's important for all artists and small business owners to be aware that there are options available to them should they become victims of tortious interference.  As a rule, the law doesn't look kindly upon those who open a business solely to spite another business.  In the real world, Tom has options - and so do you.  Of course, this is TV and I'm sure that whatever the Parks & Recreation writers come up with, it will be a hell of a lot funnier than watching this play out in a courtroom.

[You can also make a credible argument that Tom has a trade dress claim - a form of trademark infringement that protects a store's interior design - against the competitor since we learn that the interior of Tommy's Closet looks exactly like the interior of Rent-a-Swag.]

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA