Losing My Religion (and My Money): How the Church of Scientology Contractually Limits Its Ex-Members’ Ability to Fight the Church in Court
By: Paige Papandrea, Volume 103 Staff Member
The Church of Scientology enjoys an unsavory reputation with the general public, in part due to recent investigative efforts spurred by ex-members and non-members alike.While deaths at the Church’s “drug treatment centers”and stories of members’ deaths while in the Church’s “care” gained national attention, ex-members’ struggles to assert various legal claims against the Church have gone largely unnoticed, until recently. The Church’s status as a religious entity, which limits courts’ review of its practices and doctrines, and the series of contracts that members must sign upon joining the Church constrain ex-members’ efforts to sue the Church. These contracts and two examples of recent litigation involving said contracts will be discussed below.
I. Contracts Used by the Church to Limit Its (Ex-)Members’ Legal Rights
There are several types of contracts used by the Church to significantly limit its current and former members’ ability to sue the Church, three of which will be discussed here. The first is the “Attestation of Religious Belief Regarding the Scientology Religious Film called Orientation,” which a new member signs after watching a Scientology promotional film and contractually agrees that Scientology is a religion. This agreement can then be used by the Church in litigation if an ex-member claims that they did not believe that Scientology was a religion.
The second contract is the “Religious Services Enrollment Application, Agreement, and General Release” (the “General Release”). By signing this agreement, a member indefinitely waives their right to sue the Church and agrees to binding arbitrations in any and all disputes the member may have with the Church. This agreement requires the parties to select three Scientologists in good standing to serve as the arbitrators, forbids the members from having legal representation during the arbitration proceedings, and allows the arbitrators to exclude any evidence “critical of the Church.”
The third contract is the “Agreement Regarding Confidential Religious Files,” in which members waive their rights to ever read, inspect, review, or own their “pre-clear” folders. The information in “pre-clear” folders is allegedly protected by “priest/penitent privilege.” However, the folders often contain damaging information, collected during “auditing sessions” and “security checks,” that is used against ex-members in litigation.
II. Recent Litigation Against the Church of Scientology Involving the “General Release” and “Confidential Religious Files” Agreements
A. Garcia v. Church of Scientology Flag Service Organization, Inc.
The Garcias were longtime Scientologists who the Church labeled as “Suppressive Persons” (i.e. excommunicated from the Church) after they requested refunds for payments they alleged were fraudulently induced. After leaving the Church, they sued for $78,859.01 in returns of advance donations for services they never availed themselves of and $890,410 in allegedly fraudulently induced donations. However, they were bound by the religious arbitration provision in the “General Release” agreement they signed.
The Garcias faced a unique problem when attempting to select arbitrators: since they were labeled as Suppressive Persons, “Scientologists in good standing” were forbidden from speaking to them. The Garcias and the Church consequently spent over two years disputing the selection of the arbitrators, as the Garcias’ selections were either rejected by the Church or they refused to participate.After years of pre-arbitration legal battles, the Garcias became the first people in Scientology’s history to actually make it to arbitration.
Once in arbitration, the court-selected Scientologist-arbitrators determined that the Garcias were only entitled to $18,495.36 in repayments for “religious retreats they did not avail themselves of.” The Garcias then challenged the arbitration decision in court, but United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division, upheld the arbitration award despite the Garcias’ claims that the arbitration panel acted with “evident partiality and engaged in misconduct” and the arbitration was substantively and procedurally unfair.The court focused on the religious nature of the arbitration, emphasizing how courts have even less authority to override arbitration decisions when they involve interpretation or application of religious doctrine.
B. DeCrescenzo v. Church of Scientology International
Laura DeCrescenzo was also a longtime Scientologist, signing the Church’s “Billion Year Contract” at just twelve-years-old. After leaving the Church, she sued and alleged that the Church falsely imprisoned her, isolated her from her family, and forced her to have an abortion when she was seventeen. DeCrescenzo’s lawsuit against Scientology began in 2009 and survived multiple appeals and motions to dismiss, and even countersuits, by the Church.
In 2016, the court denied the Church’s motions for summary judgment and held that the matter should be called for hearing. Throughout 2018, the parties filed motions in preparation for trial. In July of 2018, DeCrescenzo’s attorneys filed a subpoena to obtain testimony from David Miscavige, the Church’s leader.The judge set a hearing on the subpoena for the following Monday, but by the following Tuesday, the Church entered into a confidential settlement agreement with DeCrescenzo.
DeCrescenzo’s case is notable because she was able to get her case into court and reach the point of a hearing on her case’s merits. DeCrescenzo’s largest victory, however, was gaining access to her “pre-clear files,” which the Church attempted to restrict access to in its “Confidential Religious Files” agreement. When DeCrescenzo obtained her files, the Church was “forced to disclose that hundreds of people had had access to these ‘confidential’ files.” Her access to her “pre-clear files” sets a precedent that Scientology cannot restrict access to these files or claim confidentiality on the grounds of “priest/penitent privilege.”
III. What do Garcia and DeCrescenzo mean for future litigants?
Garcia sets an unfortunate standard for Scientology-related arbitration. Future litigants are unlikely to successfully argue, post-arbitration, that the arbitration proceedings were substantively or procedurally unfair. Though plaintiffs are likely to face significant difficulty in challenging the validity of Scientology arbitration, they may be more successful if they attack the agreements and the doctrines underpinning the arbitration. However, until the Church is stripped of its religious status, as designated by the IRS, it will be extremely challenging for litigants to challenge potentially fraudulent conduct by the Church.
DeCrescenzo sets a positive standard for ex-Scientologists who can avoid or bypass the arbitration hurdle.DeCrescenzo’s access to her “pre-clear files” sets a legal precedent that the “Confidential Religious Files” agreement is unenforceable in a court of law. It also strikes a blow to the Church’s public reputation as a religious entity because the “pre-clear files” no longer receive confidential status on the grounds of “priest/penitent privilege.”
- See, e.g., Scientology and Me (BBC One May 14, 2007) (investigating the Church of Scientology and highlighting, in part, how the Church forces members to “disconnect” from non-Scientology family members or risk excommunication from the Church); Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (HBO Documentary Films Jan. 25, 2015) (discussing, in part, how the Church surveilled and harassed former members and imprisoned senior executives).
- Thomas C. Tobin, Deaths at Scientology Drug Treatment Program Narconon Bring Investigation, Tampa Bay Times (Aug. 16, 2012), https://www.tampabay.com/news/scientology/deaths-at-scientology-drug-treatment-program-narconon-bring-investigation/1246054.
- Lisa McPherson was taken by paramedics to a hospital, where she was later removed by Scientologists, against medical advice, because psychiatric care “violate[d] McPherson’s religion.” Richard Lei, The Life & Death of a Scientologist, Washington Post (Dec. 6, 1998), https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1998/12/06/the-life-death-of-a-scientologist/15668e42-c2c3-478b-835a-c0246dfa6436/?utm_term=.6f9671b278a6. Scientologists had the right to do so because McPherson had signed the Church’s “Agreement and General Assistance Regarding Spiritual Assistance,” more commonly known as its “kidnap contract” that gave the Church the right to remove members from psychiatric care and hold them “for an indefinite duration of time.” Tony Ortega, DOX: How Scientology Ensnares the Unsuspecting in a Series of Binding Contracts, tonyortega.com (May 22, 2015), https://tonyortega.org/2015/05/22/dox-how-scientology-ensnares-the-unsespecting-in-a-series-of-binding-contracts/. McPherson died within seventeen days of the Church’s care; she lost “an estimated 40 to 50 pounds” during this period and was found covered in “insect bites and scabs.” Lei, supra note 4.
- See, e.g., Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath: The Business of Religion (The Intellectual Property Corporation television series Oct. 24, 2017) [hereinafter The Business of Religion] (discussing the Church’s tax-exempt status by the IRS and religious recognition for legal purposes).
- Order, Garcia v. Church of Scientology Flag Service Organization, Inc., No. 8:13-cv-220-T-27TBM, at 8 (M.D. Fla. July 17, 2018) [hereinafter Garcia Order] (stating that “the Free Exercise Clause prohibits this Court from resolving the [parties’] disputes concerning the interpretation or application of Scientology doctrine”).
- Ortega, supra note 4.
- See Ortega, supra note 4.
- See Ortega, supra note 4; The Business of Religion, supra note 5; see, e.g., Garcia Order, supra note 6, at 6.
- Garcia Order, supra note 6, at 6, 7, 7 n.5; The Business of Religion, supra note 5.
- Ortega, supra note 4.
- See Laura Collins, EXCLUSIVE: Ex-Scientologist Who Claims the Church Forced Her to Have an Abortion and Take Part in ‘Slave Labor” Leading Her to Fake Her Suicide Is Battling Church Determined to Toss Out Years-Long Court Case, Daily Mail (Jan. 29, 2018), https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5256403/Former-Scientologist-forced-abortion.html.
- The Business of Religion, supra note 5.
- Garcia Order, supra note 6, at 2.
- Garcia Order, supra note 6, at 6; see also Ortega, supranote 4 (quoting the relevant language from the “General Release” agreement).
- The Business of Religion, supra note 5 (describing how ex-Scientologists face significant difficulties in arbitration because “Scientologists in good standing” cannot speak to them and those that do are biased against them).
- Dan Sullivan, Seeking to Break Legal Logjam, Judge Asks for List of Scientologists to Arbitrate Church Lawsuit, Tampa Bay Times (Apr. 30, 2017), https://www.tampabay.com/news/courts/civil/seeking-to-break-legal-logjam-judge-asks-for-list-of-scientologists-to/2321577.
- The Business of Religion, supra note 5 (discussing that despite the contractually mandated arbitration, only the Garcias had succeeded in forcing the Church into arbitration).
- Sullivan, supra note 17 (stating that the judge ordered the Church to give the court a list of 500 Los Angeles Scientologists in good standing from which the judge would select three as arbitrators).
- Garcia Order, supra note 6, at 3.
- Garcia Order, supra note 6, at 3–4 (stating that the Garcias alleged that the “arbitrators engaged in misconduct by refusing to hear evidence or witnesses critical of the Church . . . [and] refusing to hear their fraud claims,” amongst other claims).
- Garcia Order, supra note 6 (citing Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 679, 727 (1872) (whenever questions of “ecclesiastical rule, custom or law have been decided by the highest . . . church judicatories to which the matter has been carried, the legal tribunals must accept such decisions as final, and as binding on them”)).
- Lisa Bartley, Scientology Settles ‘Forced Abortion’ Lawsuit Out of Court, abc7.com (July 24, 2018), https://abc7.com/society/scientology-settles-forced-abortion-lawsuit-out-of-court/3812446/.
- Trial Order, DeCrescenzo v. Church of Scientology International, 2016 WL 3545977, at *1 (Cal. Super. Apr. 27, 2016).
- Bill Hetherman, Judge to Decide if Scientology Leader Must Testify in Upcoming Trial, nbclosangeles.com (July 19, 2018), https://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/Judge-to-Decide-if-Scientology-Leader-Must-Testify-in-Upcoming-Trial-488637941.html.
- Bartley, supra note 23.
- Collins, supra note 11.
- Although Wollersheim v. Church of Scientology dealt with emotional injury claims stemming from auditing, disconnect, and “fair game” practices, its holding may be persuasive in some other contexts. See Wollersheim v. Church of Scientology, 212 Cal. App. 3d 872, 872 (1989) (holding, in relevant part, that “practices inflicted upon former member were conducted in coercive environment and thus were not qualified as voluntary religious practices entitled to constitutional protection”).
- Though not mentioned in publicly available materials, DeCrescenzo and the plaintiff in Wollersheim seemed to avoid the arbitration issue with no pushback from the Church. This may be because their allegations concern issues of bodily harm, emotional abuse, and violations of state laws, as compared to the Garcia’s breach of contract claims.