(CN) - Coach fell "woefully short" of proving that a Chinese immigrant was at the helm of a $105 million counterfeiting conspiracy, a federal judge ruled.
The allegations stem from a September 2009 seizure by U.S. Customs and Border Protection of 30,150 counterfeit handbags at Port Newark, N.J.
If authentic, the bags had a retail value of about $10.5 million.
Coach traced the shipment to Mingliang International Trading in Queens, N.Y., at the business address of a Chinese immigrant, Lin Hu Jin.
In a 2011 federal complaint, Coach and a subsidiary claimed to have found 10 invoices allegedly addressed to Lin's place, some with his office phone number. Though nearly all of the shipments are described as 220 cartons of alkaline batteries, they actually contained 296,010 counterfeit Coach bags, the retailer claimed.
Lin maintained, however, that beginning in 2006, he and his wife, Geng Yun Liu, merely subleased the Flushing space to short-term visitors and students from China until they divorced in 2012.
The landlord, who said he has earned money over the years through temporary jobs like waiting tables and crafting sushi, denied any connection to the counterfeit bags and said that the invoices strongly suggest that his former subletter, Ming Liang Jiang, is the responsible party.
Coach alleges, however, that Lin and several of his subletters "orchestrated a long-running conspiracy to willfully purchase, import, distribute, offer for sale, and/or sell in the U.S. more than $105 million dollars' worth of counterfeit handbags."
Lin is the last remaining defendant to the action, with the others having defaulted or been dismissed. U.S. District Judge Kevin McNulty said on Oct. 7 that Coach has not yet nailed down its case.
Coach "has effectively sketched out a basis for investigating Lin, not for entering summary judgment against him," the seven-page decision states.
The judge tossed aside Coach's "grave conclusions based on conjecture" that the invoices show the "conspiratorial connections" between Lin and the co-defendants.
"I am not remotely able to find, without any genuine dispute, that Lin has any relation to the Sept. 3, 2009 shipment of counterfeited merchandise, to any of the other shipments in question, or to any of the persons that the documents suggest are responsible for these shipments," McNulty wrote.
The court rejected the handbag retailer's reliance on "loose circumstantial evidence," noting that Coach has not deposed any of the connected individuals.
"It is equally plausible that someone else in Lin's building orchestrated the scheme, or that some schemer simply borrowed Lin's address and phone number as a means of concealing his or her own identity," McNulty wrote. "Coach has not presented any significant evidence regarding Ming Liang Jiang or Xin Li, among others, making it impossible to even speculate as to Lin's relationship, if any, to them."
The fact that Lin conducted business at the same address as Mingliang "is not sufficient to support an inference that Lin used Coach Trademarks in connection with importing, distributing, selling and/or offering for sale any goods," the judge later added. "Such 'guilt by location' is not a viable theory of liability."
McNulty elsewhere wrote: "The evidence regarding Lin raises an eyebrow and certainly justifies investigation by Coach. Yet not a single document or statement obtained in this investigation connects Lin to the shipments in question or to the plethora of persons and entities appearing on the documents."
The luxury leather wear dealer made $4.93 billion in sales this past year, Forbes reported.
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