A US appeal court has thrown out lawsuits brought by former Sea Org members over the abuse they suffered inside Scientology. But the ruling suggests that another legal approach might have been more fruitful.
Claire and Marc Headley, two former members of Scientology's Sea Organization, have lost their lawsuits over the violence and abuse they suffered inside the movement.
Marc Headley had argued that he and fellow workers were subjected to “assault, threat and menace” to make them work more than a hundred hours a week, for far less than the minimum wage.
His wife, Claire Headley, as well as alleging forced labor, said she and several other Sea Org members had been pressured into having abortions they did not want.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit accepted as fact many details of the harsh regime they endured at the Gold Base, or Int Base, Scientology's international headquarters in California.
But it ruled the evidence supplied was not enough to prove their complaint, which was brought under the human trafficking laws.1
The court ruled that they had failed to establish their case for human trafficking in terms of physical coercion, rejecting the psychological grounds advanced as inadequate.
Intriguingly however, in its closing paragraph, the court appeared to suggest that the evidence presented might have been better applied to any one of a number of other offences.
The case for human trafficking failed, wrote Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain on behalf of a three-judge panel. But he added:
...we do not decide how the Headleys might have fared under a different statute or on other legal theories.
The Headleys abandoned claims under federal and state minimum wage laws.
And although the Headleys marshaled evidence of potentially tortious conduct, they did not bring claims for assault, battery, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, or any of a number of other theories that might have better fit the evidence.
The Headleys' lawyers had counted on establishing their case under the laws against human trafficking.
That would have allowed them to challenge Scientology's argument that its religious status precluded any scrutiny of their conduct – the so-called ministerial exception derived from the US First Amendment protection religious freedom.
They were effectively arguing that the First Amendment could not override the Thirteenth Amendment: the one guaranteeing protection from involuntary servitude and slavery.
But they failed to clear that hurdle: the appeal court ruled that they had not made their case for human trafficking.
We emphasize that the Headleys had innumerable opportunities to leave the defendants. They lived outside of the Base and had access to vehicles, phones, and the Internet.
They traveled away from the Base often. The security that they decry afforded them a multitude of opportunities to leave, as hundreds of other Sea Org members had done – whatever their commitments and whatever they may have been told regarding the permissibility of leaving ...
They have not established a genuine issue of fact regarding whether they were victims of forced-labor violations.
And that, the court added, meant it did not have to consider the constitutional question of whether or not the ministerial exception could trump the laws on human trafficking.
The Headleys had put all their money on the human trafficking allegations, the court noted – and lost.
Whatever bad acts the defendants (or others) may have committed, the record does not allow the conclusion that the Church ... violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
The Headleys' response
Contacted for a reaction, the Headleys released the following statement.
“Our intention in filing this lawsuit was to expose the many abuses we suffered at the hands of the scientology organization.
“Aside from escaping scientology, this lawsuit has been extremely tough on us emotionally.
“Regardless of the legal outcome, and that it seems scientology is authorized to commit these abuses in the eyes of the law, we are thankful that we have managed to establish, in public record, the many harmful and abusive activities scientology perpetrates on its members.
“There is not one statement we made, in regards to abuses and our experiences that scientology either denied nor disproved. If even one person is saved from suffering as we did, we are thankful for that.
“Scientology made all of our immediate family members disconnect from us, with the statement that we had told lies about what we experienced.
“Well, it has now been documented in courts of law, with under oath testimony and deposition, in volumes, that nothing we ever said was a lie. Of course scientology has not told our families that, but it is now in the public domain.
“We did not expect this outcome and are disappointed we lost, but on the other hand, we know that many others are now speaking out as a result of what we went through, and that scientology has had to curtail many of its worst abuses, for example, we know for a fact they no longer force members to have abortions.
“We are making every effort to move on and live our lives, and to put scientology in our distant past.”
Looking at the allegations presented in the case – and accepted as fact in the appeal court judgment – the Headleys certainly established the abusive nature of the regime at Int Base.
The restrictions on Sea Org members' lives was detailed: letters censored, phone calls monitored, limited access to the Internet.
The Sea Org ban on having children was also set out; and the restriction placed on staff at the Religious Technology Center – the holy of holies inside the Sea Org – that they can only marry fellow RTC workers.
The judgement also noted the lengths to which the Sea Org will go to track down and recover a member who has “blown” – left without permission.
But while court also described the practice of disconnection, in which Scientologists shun outcast members – it failed to grasp the coercive way it is enforced and its devastating effects.
Apparently the pain and suffering caused by disconnection do not constitute “serious harm” – at least under the terms of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
The violence and abuse at Int Base also received a mention, even if it hardly begins to cover the extent of the problem.
Marc and Claire experienced and observed verbal reprimands and physical abuse while in the Sea Org.
A senior Scientology executive physically struck Marc on two occasions and another official punched him on another occasion. A co-worker shoved Claire once.
Marc and Claire allege that they saw senior Scientology leaders physically abuse other staff.
Somewhere along the line, the Headleys' legal team at Metzger Law Group appear to have conceded the point that their clients could be considered ministers for the purposes of this case.
Certainly that is what one of the judges suggested during oral arguments at the appeal court in February.
It is difficult to see why a minister would be assigned to “hand-cleaning human excrement from a large aeration pond” as Marc Headley and some colleagues had to do for two days – even if it was a punishment detail.
Unfortunately, the Headleys' new legal team also dropped the claims under the minimum wage and child labor laws that Barry Van Sickle, the attorney who filed the original lawsuit, had included.
At the risk of sounding like a Monday morning quarterback, that now looks to have been a bit unfortunate given the some of the points made in the final paragraph of the judgement.
But as attorney Scott Pilutik points out in his contribution to Tony Ortega's Village Voice article, “...there is an inherent risk-reward component here:
In baseball terms, if you swing for the fences you're more likely to hit a home run... but you're also more likely to strike out. If the Headleys' human trafficking case was successful, it would have had a massive impact on how Scientology treats its staff members going forward.2
This ruling means that the only remaining lawsuit from a former Sea Org member is the one filed by Laura DeCrescenzo in 2009, shortly after the Headleys.
Recruited at the age of 12, and married at 16, she fell pregnant when she was 17.
Her employers forced her to have an abortion because of the ban on Sea Org members having children, the lawsuit alleges.
She eventually became so desperate to escape she swallowed bleach to get herself thrown out.
Her case, also filed in California, was knocked back at the district court level, but reinstated by an appeal court ruling in June last year.
Her original complaint pursued the movement for unpaid wages, discrimination and invasion of privacy, human trafficking, intentional inflicting of emotional distress and obstruction of justice.
Subsequent amendments added fraud, deceit and deprivation of liberty and other alleged offences to the list.
That looks like a more scattergun approach to her case: what the court will make of it remains to be seen.
2 From Tony Ortega's July 24 Village Voice article: “Scientology Wins Appeal In Lawsuit Alleging Forced Labor and Forced Abortions”