Ezell's Food Fight: Court Battle Over Oprah's Favorite Fried-Chicken Empire Nearing End?

A federal judge has sent the long-running Ezell's Famous Chicken food fight back to state court, where it is now heading for a summary judgment hearing and perhaps a conclusion. Ezell Stephens, the namesake founder of Oprah's favorite chicken joint, lost his bid to turn the dispute into a federal case over trademark issues. He now faces an uphill battle in King County Superior Court, where a majority of Ezell's ownership claims Stephens breached contracts and misappropriated his own recipes.

The dispute dates back to 1998, when Stephens began making moves to branch out on his own. The chicken chain was founded at its Garfield High School location in 1984 by Stephens, his then-wife Faye Rudd, her brother Lewis Rudd, and Stephens' brother Sam. In court, the battle seems to pit Rudd and Stephens, buddies since childhood, head to head.

Ezell, who was tossed from the board last year but still owns a quarter of the corporation, opened his own stores in recent years in Lake City and Lynnwood (which the chain also lays claim to). Ezell told the board to stop using his name and intellectual properties at the other stores, insisting Ezell's directors "cannot be trusted."

Rudd says Stephens expanded without board approval and wrongly used corporate funds and assets. He also operates without a license to use the EFC brand, says Rudd. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik ruled in March that these were issues under state, not federal, law, and returned the case to superior court.

In court papers filed two weeks ago, the board moved for summary judgment, asking that Stephens be found to have breached agreements and pay a five percent penalty on the income he made. "The facts of this case cannot be disputed," the board says: Stephens admits he signed the contracts at issue, and the facts show he violated them.

A hearing is set for August.

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