If you or someone you know is considering suing a cult, think hard before doing so. Never bring a lawsuit to get even. It doesn't work, said Herb Rosedale, one of three speakers at the Cults and the Legal System session of last fall's Cult Awareness Network national conference. The law doesn't work that way. Bring a lawsuit to repair damage to yourself; to restore rights that have been abridged.
Rosedale is an attorney and president of the American Family Foundation. He and two former members who have had legal dealings with groups they maintain are cults led the discussion. Rosedale said that before anyone decides to sue a cult or its leaders, you have to first examine the facts as if no cult is involved. If a person can show that through its actions, a cult violated personal rights or committed fraud or engaged in other legally actionable activities, then a lawsuit may be warranted.
Joel Greenberg, a formermember of Bayard Hora Associates, which offered so-called business training courses, told how he took that organization to small claims court and won, mostly without help from legal experts. A former group member and another cult expert helped get Greenberg out of the group. About two weeks later he went to a lawyer, who did not understand what Greenberg was telling him. So Greenberg waited nine more months, until he was more settled and clearer in his own mind about what he had been through, before deciding to take Bayard Hora to small claims court. (Greenberg's claim totaled less than$5,000.)
Greenberg sought advice from lawyers but did most of the leg work, such as looking up case law, to bolster his claim. He also assembled evidence, such as writings of the groups leader, to demonstrate that group leadership routinely deceived clients and encouraged followers such as Greenberg to mislead others into taking courses.He won a default judgment from the Philadelphia small claims court, because no one from Bayard Hora showed up to contest his claim.
Winning a judgment and collecting it, though, turned out to be two different things. The group engaged in a host of maneuvers to block Greenberg from collecting, including claiming they had not received proper notice of the legal proceedings and emptying their bank accounts.Greenberg eventually won a break-in order, allowing him and the sheriff to enter Bayard Hora property to inventory what could be sold to satisfy the judgment. After losing a request for an injunction to block the break-in order, the group and Greenberg settled.
The panels third speaker was Joe Flanagan, a former Scientologist who during the 1980s deprogramed other Scientologists, which led to several civil and criminal complaints against him. Unlike Rosedale and Greenberg, who spoke from the perspective of plaintiffs bringing civil suits, Flanagan spoke from the perspective of a defendant being sued.The lawsuits against Flanagan were filed by individual Scientologists but were undoubtedly backed by the church, according to Flanagan. The best you can hope is not to lose, Flanagan said. Because of the group's enormous financial resources, it can afford to drag out court cases for years. A favorite tactic is to file a host of meritless motions that force defendants to spend time and money responding to them.It is an incredibly abusive process, Flanagan said. "You find yourself saying, this is an outrage. Can they do this?" Unfortunately, under the current system of law, they usually can, no matter how absurd their motion or claim.
To illustrate his point, Flanagan told how more than three years into defending himself from a Scientologist's lawsuit, the plaintiffs lawyers filed a motion asking that Flanagans attorney be dismissed from the case. Their claim? They were afraid the attorney was so prejudiced against the church Flanagan would not receive good representation in the upcoming trial. The motion failed, but Flanagan and his attorney had to waste time and money to respond to it. Flanagan could give no details of his eventual settlement because of a nondisclosure agreement both sides signed.
But even nondisclosure agreements can be grist for Scientology's lawsuit mill, as Flanagan soon learned. After settling the case, he was sued for contempt for violating terms of the nondisclosure agreement. The plaintiffs interpretation of the agreement was a total distortion, according to Flanagan. A judge agreed and threw out the contempt citation. So it could be said that Flanagan won the matter. But as he pointed out, he was again forced to spend considerable time and money to defend himself from a meritless claim.