NUZ: A Buddhist Guru’s Long Fall

Santa Cruz native Noah Levine’s scandal streak continues

Close your eyes and imagine a Buddhist. Do you picture a robed figure sitting on a mountaintop surrounded by clouds? Or maybe someone giving away their Earthly possessions with the goal of detaching from the material world and finding deeper meaning within?

Maybe, maybe not. What you probably don’t picture is a washed-up narcissist fighting tooth and nail over allegedly ill-gotten profits and his own reputation—or what’s left of it anyway, now that he’s been ostracized by the community for being a power-grabbing sleazebag.

But we digress…

On Jan. 28, Santa-Cruz-son-turned-L.A.-Buddhist-guru Noah Levine filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against the nonprofit Refuge Recovery, a Buddhist-based addiction treatment program he helped found. That same day, Refuge Recovery filed its own suit against Levine over trademark ownership, copyright issues and unfair business practices.  

The nonprofit claims that many of the issues stem from Levine’s use of the nonprofit’s name and imagery for personal gain through a web of similarly named ventures, like the now-defunct company Refuge Recovery Treatment Centers. Refuge Recovery, the original nonprofit, argues that the knockoffs could have confused people seeking addiction treatment from one of the group’s international meetings, of which there are 660 in the U.S. alone.

The suit also alleges that Levine diverted $130,000 donated to the nonprofit to be used for treatment and rehab for people who could not afford it at another of his side hustles, the Refuge Recovery House. Levine used the money instead for businesses expenses, the nonprofit’s suit claims, including employee salaries.

“The more we dug, the more we saw these legal and ethical problems,” says Refuge Recovery Board Chair Christopher Kavanaugh. “It’s unfortunate. You have no idea how much energy was spent trying to avoid it coming to this.”

Kavanaugh says that it’s “just an odd coincidence” that the two parties ultimately filed lawsuits on the same day (although the timing wasn’t totally unexpected, given that eight days earlier, Kavanaugh notified Levine that Refuge Recovery’s suit would be imminent).

Levine did not respond to GT’s request for comment on the competing lawsuits.

The dispute comes on the heels of another battle Levine fought last year, when he faced allegations of sexual misconduct. A Los Angeles Police Department investigation did not find enough evidence to bring charges against Levine, but the allegations still sent shockwaves through Against The Stream (ATS), yet another nonprofit that the the Buddhist teacher founded. After an investigation, ATS determined that Levine had likely broken the group’s rules. The board dissolved and ATS closed its meditation centers on Sept. 30, 2018.

Refuge Recovery wants to be clear that the new lawsuit, however, “has nothing to do with the allegations of sexual misconduct against Mr. Levine,” according to a Jan. 28 statement on its website.

Regardless, the organization has been mindful of the whole mess for some time. In 2009, according to the Refuge Recovery lawsuit, ATS members began discussing how Buddhism could help with addiction—and began kicking around the name “Refuge Recovery.” Alcoholics Anonymous-style meetings were soon held under the name, followed by discussions of a collaborative book featuring personal stories from several founders. In 2011, the group created and filed a fictitious business name statement the following year.

Refuge Recovery, the book, was published in 2014—with Levine as its sole author, though he acknowledged the group’s collaborative nature—and became widely successful.

Things got more muddled when Levine opened Refuge Recovery House that same year, then created Refuge Recovery Clinical Services LLC in 2015. Both companies advertised under the Refuge Recovery name and logo. Over the next two years, Refuge Recovery House obtained the trademark for the Refuge Recovery name and logo to sell various merchandise, from bumper stickers to baseball caps.

Many directors of the Refuge Recovery nonprofit tried to get Levine to give up the trademark or the copyright, Kavanaugh says, but those talks broke down, which led to the lawsuits. In a Jan. 28 Facebook statement, Levine wrote that he gives licensing permission to the nonprofit to “use the Refuge Recovery name and logo for the purposes of your local meetings, local websites, and local social media accounts, consistent with the vision and program articulated in the Refuge Recovery book.”

After a long and confusing road, Kavanaugh says it’s little surprise the conflict has moved to the court system.

“If you work for the Red Cross, and then open up your own business using similar things and imagery as the Red Cross,” he analogizes, “it won’t be surprising if you have some conflicts with the Red Cross.”

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