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.

1 comment:

  1. brush up with hackers?? oh noes... glad to see everything all intact.

    Great write-up Jonny, thanks for the excellent summation.