Tuesday 2 August 2011

Legal Update II: the Headleys

A case before the U.S. Supreme Court in October could play a key role in lawsuits filed against Scientology by former members of its Sea Organization.

In 2005 Cheryl Perich , a teacher at a small elementary school in Redford, Michigan, was preparing to return to work after six months on medical leave. But her employers said they did not think she was ready.

She tried to report for work anyway and finally threatened legal action to get her post back. They fired her, so she went to court.

In any state school, it would have been an open-and-shut case given the laws forbidding discrimination on grounds of disability, says her lawyer.

But as this was a religious school – the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School – they had a fight on their hands.

For the school’s officials said that by going to law, Perich had broken a tenet of Lutheran faith that was part of school policy: that employees resolve disputes through the church’s internal church procedures.

And in October, it will go before the Supreme Court for argument.

Here is how the Scotus (Supreme Court) blog sums up the core issue:

Courts have generally believed that federal employment discrimination statutes do not apply to church employees performing religious functions. The question is whether this “ministerial exception” applies not simply to religious leaders, but also to teachers at a religious elementary school.[1]

Sound familiar? It should.

In the complaints he filed for Marc and Claire Headley, lawyer Barry Van Sickle has attacked the notion that all members of Scientology’s Sea Organization perform religious functions.

In Claire Headley’s complaint, he argued: “She was not a minister and Golden Era [her Scientology employer] was not a church.” Her duties were mainly “clerical, commercial or secular” in nature, he wrote.

In Marc Headley’s complaint, he made the same point: “Plaintiff’s duties were secular and commercial in nature. Golden Era Productions is a business enterprise.” Marc Headley had worked mainly on film and promotional material that were sold commercially.

He correctly anticipated then, that Scientology would base its defence on the principle of ministerial exception.

Ministerial exception is derived from the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing religious freedom.

In the past, the courts have interpreted this as granting an exemption for religious organisations from the usual requirements of employment law – everything from minimum wage to sex discrimination.

But if the U.S. Supreme Court decides the church school stretched its constitutionally guaranteed prerogatives too far, it would be a major blow to Scientology’s defence against lawsuits brought by ex- Sea Org members.

Indeed, if the court finds for Perich and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, then Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC the shockwaves could reach much further.[2]

Why the cases fell

Here’s a quick recap for those of you who tuned in late (for more detail, see the relevant postings elsewhere on this site).[3]

The Headleys filed their cases in the California courts in 2009. Both were dismissed in summary judgments issued by Judge Dale S. Fischer on August 5, 2010.

In each ruling, Judge Fischer ruled, in effect, that the Headleys knew what they were signing up for when they joined the Sea Org.

In Marc Headley’s lawsuit, he alleged that he was forced to work long hours below the minimum wage at Scientology’s California centre, known as the Int. Base.

He described seeing colleagues assaulted and detailed the physical abuse that he himself suffered.

And he also alleged that the Sea Org illegally used child labour, a claim that has appeared in other lawsuits filed by former members.[4]

But Judge Fischer accepted Scientology’s argument that employment conditions and practices in the Sea Org were covered by ministerial exception.

And she invoked the same principle when she dismissed Claire Headley’s case.[5]

Headley had argued her claim was valid under human trafficking laws because:

1.      Defendants coerced her into having two abortions;
2.     Defendants placed restrictions on Sea Org members’ ability to leave;
3.     Defendants pursue Sea Org members who leave without routing out and attempt to dissuade them from their decision;
4.     Defendants discipline Sea Org members who even express a desire to leave;
5.     Defendants censor Sea Org members’ communications;
6.     Defendants’ discipline of Sea Org members includes sleep and eating deprivation and heavy manual labour
7.      Defendants attempted to force Plaintiff to divorce her husband.[6]

But having listed the points advanced by Headley, the judge took the view that the principle of ministerial exception trumped all the issues raised.

“…Defendants here represent that the challenged conduct was doctrinally motivated,” she noted in her ruling against Claire Headley.

“…Therefore, inquiry into these allegations would entangle the Court in the religious doctrine of Scientology and the doctrinally-motivated practices of the Sea Org.”[7]

In both rulings, she rejected as “circular” the Headleys’ arguments that Scientology doctrine did not sanction such abuses.

“Determining whether Scientology’s practices of routing out, censorship, or heavy manual labor as a form of discipline, for example, constitute involuntary servitude within the meaning of the TVPA [Trafficking Victims Protection Act] is precisely the type of entanglement that the Religion Clauses prohibit.”[8]


Lawyer and blogger Scott Pilutik, in his analysis of the two judgments, has argued that it is the judge’s argument that is circular.[9]

In his view, Judge Fischer misapplied the ministerial exception test on which she based her judgment (based on a principle established in another case).

Judge Fischer accepted that Claire Headley had been recruited based on religious grounds, one of the test criteria. Nobody forced her to join, she noted: she went in with her eyes open.

But this begs important questions, Pilutik argues.

For one thing, he wrote, “…the willingness to endure substandard treatment at the hands of your employer” does not constitute a religious criterion: “…indeed, it is what labor law intends to remedy.”

And, he added, as former Sea Org members will confirm, recruits are not chosen on any religious criteria; the sole criterion is a willingness to join.

“Additionally, the court ignores that children can become Sea Org members.

“Just how strenuous could Scientology’s religious hiring criteria be if children can be Sea Org members? And are they then not therefore protected by labor law?”[10]

You don’t have to be a legal expert to see that he might just have a point here.

For Judge Fischer’s rulings appear to beg the question of just how far ministerial exception can be allowed to stretch.

Critics of ministerial exception have already argued that it was never intended to give churches cover for abusive practices.

The way Judge Fischer sees it, it looks like a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Judge Fischer, in her ruling on Marc Headley’s claim, said that by his own admission, he knew what he was letting himself in for, adding: “He also did not submit any admissible evidence that he joined the Sea Org against his will.”

But Headley joined the Sea Org at age 16, which under California laws, means he was a still a minor – and that surely raises issues of informed consent.

And even leaving aside the issue of physical abuse – which according to Judge Fischer’s ruling Scientology does not dispute took place – it can at least be argued that he was not fully informed as to the conditions he would face when he signed up.[11]

To take just one example, Headley alleges his recruiters told him he would be paid minimum wage.[12]

In Claire Headley’s case, the ruling appears to treat the issue of informed consent, of deceptive recruitment, at best superficially.

“She understood what the Sea Org lifestyle entailed because her mother, uncle, and cousins had all been Sea Org members,” the judge notes.[13]

Headley, “…does not dispute that prior to joining the Sea Org she was aware of the challenges such membership would entail,” she adds later.

“She also has not put forward any admissible evidence that she joined the Sea Org against her will.”[14]

But the complaint makes clear that she joined the Sea org, aged 16, so under California law she too was a minor.

And Headley also contends that her recruiters did not honour their promise that she would able to complete her education.

Ministerial exception

It is worth looking again at the recent California appeal court ruling reinstating Laura DeCrescenzo’s case against Scientology for what she endured in the Sea Org.

On June 24, the court decided that the issues she had raised, of coercion, deception and undue influence over vulnerable people (minors), at least deserved to be tested at trial.

The same issues do not appear to have moved Judge Fischer.

She appears to have treated the principle of ministerial exception as a kind of trump card over everything from labour law violations to human trafficking.

But there appears to be growing dissatisfaction among at least some specialists in this area over this kind of sweeping interpretation.

Critics argue that ministerial exception is not so much protecting religious freedom as running roughshod over other basic rights.

The Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC is set for argument at the Supreme Court in October, with a decision expected next year.

It is early days yet, but it could end up being the case that forces churches to pull in their horns.


[1] From the Scotusblog page on the case (Scotus: Supreme Court of the United States).
[2] For a good plain-English write-up of the Perich case, see “Michigan case puts church v. state before the U.S. Supreme Court” by Sandra Svoboda, which was the cover story of The Metro Times’ July 13 edition. Scotusblog gives you chapter and verse on the legal elements: the number of amicus briefs attached is presumably an indication of just how much is at stake here for any number of religious organisations. Scott Pilutik, who pointed out the significance of the Perich case long before I had even heard of it, has written this legal analysis at his site.
[3] For my initial write up of Marc Headley’s lawsuit, see here. He described his experiences in more detail at a conference in Hamburg, Germany in 2008, which I covered here. For coverage of the speech he gave at a Los Angeles press conference in 2010 together with other former Sea Org members to publicise abuses inside this part of Scientology’s operations, see here. And he has written up his story in a book, BlownforGood, available here. You can find my initial write-up of Claire Headley’s case here.
[4] This forms part of Laura DeCrescenzo’s lawsuit; and one of two lawsuits filed in March 2011, by Daniel Montalvo. The November 2009 lawsuit filed by John Lindstein contains similar, striking allegations: but it was settled in December 2010.
[5] Claire Headley v. Church of Scientology International et al, judgment issued August 5, 2010: page seven of the judgment.
[6] Op. cit.: page seven of the judgment.
[7] Op. cit.: page seven of the judgment.
[8] Op. cit.: page eight of the judgment.
[9] Pilutik set out his argument in a posting to the Why We Protest message board discussing the ruling against Claire Headley. His analysis is based on an earlier ruling by Judge Fischer against Claire Headley than the final judgment, but since final ruling is based on the same arguments, his objections stand.
[10] Scott Pilutik’s legal blog is back up after a brush with hackers: it has provided legal analysis not just of Laura DeCrescenzo’s case but those of the Headleys.
We know too from Lawrence Wright’s Februrary 2011 New Yorker article on defector Paul Haggis that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been investigating allegations of human trafficking against Scientology since at least December 2009. (According to sources I spoke to in early 2008, they were originally working it as a fraud investigation.) Admittedly it may come to nothing: but the fact that they are even looking suggests that the Bureau’s lawyers do not see the principle of ministerial exception as the final word in this area.
[11] “Defendant does not dispute that the record includes evidence that physical abuse occurred at its premises,” says Judge Fisher in her summary judgment of Marc Headley’s case.
Since the St Petersburg Times took this issue mainstream in its 2009-2010 investigation “The Truth Rundown”, the official Scientology line has been to blame the violence on former senior Sea Org executives such as Mike Rinder and Marty Rathbun. Although Rathbun has admitted that he was among the abusers, he was also among several former Sea Org members working at the California base who subsequently denounced the abusive regime at the base – and the physical assaults carried out by the movement’s current leader, David Miscavige. See The Case Against Miscavige and A History of Violence elsewhere on this site.
[12] “When initially recruited into employment with the Scientology enterprise, Plaintiff was told he would be paid minimum wage.” From page 13 of Marc Headley’s second amended complaint. Several former Sea Org members have complained that the picture that recruiters gave them of life in the Sea Org bore no relation to what they subsequently experienced. See for example, the first two parts of Maureen Bolstad’s account of her recruitment, The Early Years and Life at Flag, elsewhere on this website.
[13] Op. cit.: page two of the judgment.
[14] Op. cit.: page seven of the judgment.

Monday 1 August 2011

Lawsuits Update I: Laura DeCrescenzo

An appeal court ruling has put Laura DeCrescenzo’s lawsuit against Scientology back on track, while a case at the Supreme Court just might offer fresh hope for the Headleys.

A California appeal court has reinstated a lawsuit filed by Laura DeCrescenzo, who is suing Scientology for abuse she says she suffered during her time in the movement’s elite cadre, the Sea Org.

The Headleys, meanwhile, are appealing a district court judge’s dismissal of their lawsuits.

Their legal battle turns around the principle of the ministerial exception, which up until now has effectively exempted churches from respecting a range of laws regarding their staff.

But later this month, the U.S. Supreme Court will begin considering a case that effectively challenges how far this principle can be allowed to override employees’ rights.

Laura DeCrescenzo was appealing the dismissal of her case at district court level.

A former member of Scientology’s elite cadre, the Sea Org, she was so desperate to escape the movement that she swallowed bleach to convince them she was suicidal.

The original ruling said her case against Scientology fell because the statute of limitations for the alleged offences had already expired.

But on June 24, the appeal court accepted her argument that since Scientology had deceived her by telling her she had no legal recourse against them, the time limit for the alleged offences could be legitimately extended.

The ruling also accepted that harassment from Scientology had deterred her from filing suit earlier.

DeCrecenzo filed her original complaint back on April 2, 2009. In it, she described how she had started working for Scientology at the age of 10, effectively becoming their full-time employee at 10 and signing her first employment contract with them aged just 12.[1]

Married at 16, she became pregnant and the movement forced her to have an abortion at the age of 17, said the complaint.

During her time working for the Sea Org, between 1991 and 2004, she said “she was paid less than the minimum wage and worked under other illegal conditions,” the judgment noted.[2]

When she left in 2004 following her suicide attempt, she had little formal education and had been isolated from mainstream society for many years.

Her routing out process included a “coercive exit interview” during which she was required to sign documents intended to free Scientology of any legal liability for what she had experienced.

Her lawsuit contended that although these documents were illegal and unenforceable, the movement had told her she had no legal recourse against them. She was not given even copies.

In addition, Scientology said she owed them 120,000 dollars for training she had received while on staff: this is known inside the movement as a Freeloader’s Bill.

Fraud and deceit

DeCrescenzo’s original complaint applied to break the original contract between her and Scientology, which she was now arguing was unenforceable. It pursued the movement for:

·        unpaid wages;
·        discrimination and invasion of privacy;
·        human trafficking;
·        intentional inflicting of emotional distress;
·        obstruction of justice.

In an amended complaint filed in May 2009, she added fraud and deceit to the list.

Scientology got the case moved to a federal court and argued for it to be dismissed on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired. The court agreed.[3]

DeCrescenzo’s second amended complaint in February 2010 alleged offences under California state law:

·        forced abortion in violation of her right to privacy;
·        deprivation of liberty and false imprisonment (she spelt time in Scientology’s Rehabilitation Project Force)[4];
·        intentional infliction of emotional distress;
·        wage and hour violations;
·        unfair business practices.

The first two elements were listed as offences not just under California law, but the California constitution.[5]

This new version of the complaint added further allegations, detailing what it described as Scientology’s threats and intimidation between 2004, when she stopped working for the movement, up until July 2008, when she actually made the break from Scientology.

During this time, said the complaint:

…Plaintiff remained a loyal follower of the Church of Scientology. As a follower, Plaintiff was forbidden from reading or thinking anything negative about Scientology. Further, Plaintiff was threatened with rigorous sec [security] checks, and was threatened with being deemed a "Suppressive Person" if she in any way was perceived to be an enemy of Scientology. As a "Suppressive Person," Plaintiff would have been forbidden contact with her friends and family who remained at Defendants’ facilities and who continued practicing Scientology, and would have been subjected to harassment by Defendants. [6]

Since she was still inside the movement during this period, she was still under their influence and thus not fully aware off her rights, the complaint argued.

It was only after she listened to the concerns of her family – and read stories on the Internet from friends who had quit the movement and begun campaigning against Scientology – that she realized she might have a legal claim.

DeCrescenzo was arguing then, that since she had been misled about the legal validity of the exit document she had signed and had subsequently been subject to threats and intimidation, the statute of limitation could not be said to date from when she quit staff.

The district court accepted Scientology’s argument that the statute of limitations ruled out the amended complaint and dismissed the case.

But the appeal court accepted her arguments – reproducing her use of the term “brainwashing” to characterize the combination of deception, isolation and intimidation DeCrescenzo said she had endured.

“Plaintiff has further alleged that she was particularly vulnerable to defendants' influence, both during her formative years as a child and young adult, and after the time that she left the facility when she remained an adherent,” the court added.

Given all this, in particular the “long subservient relationship with Scientology”, the defendants could not use statue of limitations argument to dismiss the case.

As for the issues of fact – the allegations of intimidation, threats and harassment – they should be tested at trial, the court ruled.[7]

It is difficult to assess to what extent this ruling might help the appeals lodged by the Headleys in their lawsuits.

They are seeking to overturn a California district judge’s rulings last August that dismissed their cases in summary judgments.

But a case coming before the U.S. Supreme Court this month could play a key role in cases of this kind.
Scott Pilutik’s legal blog is back up after a brush with hackers: it provides analysis not just of Laura DeCrescenzo’s case but of the Headleys’ too.

[1] Laura Ann DeCrescenzo, (née Dieckman) v. the Church of Scientology International, April 2, 2009, filed in the County of Los Angeles, California. You can see her original complaint here, which I wrote up for this site, here.
[2] In California, where DeCrescenzo was based, the minimum wage is currently eight dollars an hour: between 1991 and 2004, the period in question, it rose from $4.25 to $6.75 according to the California state government.
[3] The ruling stated that her cause of action for the federal offences of human trafficking and forced labour dated from 2004, when she quit the movement: but the four-year statute of limitations took the life of the case only to 2008. Since she had filed in 2009, she had filed too late so far as these federal offences were concerned, according the judgment.
[4] For more on the Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF) see elsewhere on this site.
[5] Article One, Section One of the California Constitution states: All people are by nature free and independent and have inalienable rights. Among these are enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining safety, happiness, and privacy.
[6] From the second amended complaint, a copy of which Larry Brennan has posted here.
[7] For a copy of the appeal judgment, see here. The appeal court ruling also rejected Scientology’s argument that the earlier federal ruling stopped her case from going forward: it pointed out that that ruling had applied to an earlier version of her complaint.