In a potentially devastating blow to the Church of Scientology, a lawsuit filed by Laura Decrescenzo (nee Dieckman)–alleging Forced abortion; Deprivation of liberty; False imprisonment; Intentional infliction of emotional distress; and various violations of California labor law statutes–which was dismissed as time-barred by the (federal) District Court for the Central District of California in November 2009 [PDF here], and later by the lower state court, was revived when a California state appeals court reversed [PDF here] [HTML version courtesy Leagle here] the lower court and remanded with further instructions. Before I discuss the particulars of the appeals court decision, allow me to back up and provide some context.
At age 9, Laura began working for the Church of Scientology’s Sea Org in the most miserable conditions imaginable in a non-third world country. At age 16 she married a fellow Scientologist staff member and soon became pregnant. Scientology forced her to abort her child–Sea Org workers with children aren’t nearly as productive and, accordingly, having them is forbidden.
Laura endured many more years of abuse within the Sea Org, spending long stretches of time on the Rehabilitation Project Force (Scientology’s brand of prison camp). In 2004, at the age of 25, she had finally had enough. Knowing that the quickest way out was to be seen as visibly suicidal, which would cause Scientology to “offload her,” she ingested bleach in view of another Sea Org worker. Laura calculated correctly–her Sea Org days were immediately over (although she remained financially on the hook–Scientology charged her $120,000 for her “job training”–and she remained a Scientologist until 2008). Her husband remained–and remains–in the Sea Org. Before leaving Laura was required to sign numerous documents releasing Scientology from liability on any number of fronts.
Laura tells her story here in a St. Pete Times produced video which was part of its extensive 2009-2010 series on Scientology, The Truth Rundown.
Jonny Jacobson provides a more thorough summary on Laura’s backstory here.
As noted above, in 2009 Laura sued the Church of Scientology in California state court on a variety of bases. (Her second amended complaint can be read here.) Scientology removed the case to federal court and moved to dismiss, arguing that the claims were time-barred. The federal court–reasoning that Laura’s claims had accrued in 2004 and each had a statute of limitations of four years, meaning that Laura needed to file suit four years after leaving Scientology, i.e., by 2008. Laura’s attorneys argued that Scientology should be equitably estopped from asserting a statute of limitations defense where they had engaged in coercive and misleading tactics designed to prevent her from bringing a lawsuit.
The federal district court disagreed, reasoning that even if true, Laura was always aware of the underlying facts which formed the basis for the lawsuit. It remanded to the state court to address the non-federal claims, which, adopting the federal court’s logic, dismissed the remaining claims as time-barred but with leave to amend the complaint, which she did. The amended complaint didn’t change things for the state court, however, which again ruled that Laura’s claims were time barred, and dismissed the complaint, this time without leave to amend. Laura appealed, contending that upon leaving she had been threatened, intimidated, and lied to that documents she signed released Scientology from liability.
In its June 24, 2011 opinion, the California Court of Appeals (Second District) agreed with Laura, finding that she had…
adequately alleged that (1) she was unable to comprehend the wrongfulness of the defendants’ conduct for a period of time and that her causes of action did not accrue until she did so and (2) even after her delayed discovery of her causes of action, the defendants’ threats and intimidation caused her to delay filing her complaint.
Scientology had also argued that the federal court dismissal of her claims collaterally estopped (essentially, legally prevented due to a prior ruling) Laura from litigating those same issues, but the appeals court noted that the federal court’s dismissal came prior to Laura’s second amended complaint, which contained new allegations not precluded by the federal judgment.
The appeals court provides a thorough explanation of the legal principle (“equitable estoppel”) that permits Laura to bring otherwise time-barred claims, but the following definition is the most concise: “Where the delay in commencing action is induced by the conduct of the defendant it cannot be availed of by him as a defense.” In other words, if Scientology in any way caused Laura to delay filing her claims, they cannot assert a statute of limitations defense.
The appeals court then finds that Laura has more than adequately pled facts in her second amended complaint which, if true, prevent Scientology from asserting the statute of limitations as a defense. Those facts are as follows:
- She was forced to work in harsh conditions and subjected to punishment;
- At the time she terminated her employment and left the facility in 2004, she was required to sign documents purporting to exculpate defendants and requiring her to keep certain information confidential or suffer penalties and fines;
- Defendants knew that those documents were contrary to law and unenforceable, and that defendants intended to intimidate her into believing that she had no legal rights against them;
- She was told at that time that she owed defendants approximately $120,000 for her job training;
- She remained a loyal Scientology follower until July 2008 and that, as a loyal follower, she was forbidden from reading or thinking anything negative about Scientology;
- She was threatened with harassment and banishment from her family and friends who remained at the Scientology facilities if she were deemed an enemy of Scientology;
- After leaving the facility, she made payments on her purported debt for some time because she believed that she was obligated to do so and she reasonably believed that she had no legal rights or claims against defendants because of their representations concerning the documents that she had signed; and
- She first realized in July 2008 that she might have legal claims against defendants despite the documents she had previously signed, when she happened upon some information on the Internet and her family members then shared their concerns.
[The above is taken directly from the court of appeals decision but I took the liberty of reformatting it for readability purposes.]
It’s helpful to realize at this point that the court is assuming the above facts are true only for the purposes of affirmatively finding whether Laura has adequately pled a cause of action able to survive Scientology’s motion to dismiss. On remand, it will be the trial court’s task to discover “[w]hether plaintiff’s reliance on the alleged threats was reasonable” based on the evidence produced at trial. This effectively means that discovery may now commence in the Laura Decrescenzo v. Church of Scientology International, Inc., et al. lawsuit.
This leaves Scientology in something of a pickle. The last thing they want is a public inquiry into the horrific conditions endured by Sea Org members. As the above video bears out, Laura comes off as credible and highly sympathetic. A trial is incredibly risky. At the same time, settling carries its own risks. As nightmarish as Laura’s story is, it is sadly not uncommon, as anyone who has researched Scientology can and will tell you. To settle would be a tacit admission that Scientology’s standard practices–with nothing more–violate various torts, labor laws, and civil rights norms. It would also be a tacit admission that the form waivers and releases Scientology requires every member to sign are ultimately unenforceable.
So what will Scientology do? If history is a reliable guide, they’ll eagerly pursue Option C–that is, neither settling nor commencing discovery–for as long as they can. But I don’t want to think out loud on Scientology’s behalf with respect to their legal options so I’ll end this here.