Scientologists ‘committed fraud upon the court’ West Palm lawyer claims

Palm Beach Post/January 19, 2018

By Jane Musgrave

In a move that could help scores of people who claim they have been duped by the Church of Scientology, a West Palm Beach lawyer on Friday asked a federal judge to rule that the controversial sect committed a fraud upon the court and shouldn’t be allowed to resolve disputes behind closed doors.

In court papers filed in U.S. District Court in Tampa, attorney Theodore Babbitt contends the church made no pretense of conducting a fair and impartial hearing on his clients’ claims that it defrauded them out of $465,000 before they became disillusioned with its tactics. He is asking U.S. District Judge James Whittemore to reverse his decision to allow the Garcias’ lawsuit to be decided by Scientologists in arbitration and instead order that it be decided in a court of law.

“The arbitration was a mockery that no judge should countenance,” Babbitt wrote.

While he suspected the arbitration - the first ever conducted by the church - would be tantamount to “a kangaroo court,” the reality was far worse, he said.

Clearwater attorneys representing the church, which has a large operation in the Gulf coast city, didn’t return a phone call for comment.

Babbitt said his clients - Luis and Maria Garcia - weren’t allowed to call any witnesses at the court-ordered October hearing that was conducted by the church’s international justice chief. Contrary to promises church leaders made before the hearing, Babbitt was prohibited from attending. Further only about 70 of the 900 pages of material the California couple gathered to shore up their claims were permitted to be shown to the three Scientologists who served on the arbitration panel.

Anything that was deemed “entheta,” was rejected, Garcia said in an affidavit, describing the hearing conducted at the church’s headquarters in California. The term is used by Scientologists to describe anything that is critical of the church, Garcia said.

Further, before the hearing began, the three Scientologists on the panel spent hours meeting privately, Garcia said. Mike Ellis, the church’s justice chief, explained that he had to “hat” the three panelists so they would understand their roles. In Scientology parlance, that means Ellis had to train them, Garcia said.

No court reporter recorded the proceedings so Garcia’s affidavit is the only record of what happened, Babbitt said.

While the panel rejected nearly all of the Garcias’ claims, it agreed to reimburse the couple $18,000 they paid the church’s travel agency for trips they never took, Babbitt said. Since they are rejecting the panel’s decision, they returned the check, he said.

“The proceeding here was a sham that does not deserve to be called arbitration,” he wrote. “This was a star chamber proceeding, completely controlled from start to end by the church, with no ability for the (Garcias) to present their case.”

Before ordering the arbitration, Whittemore acknowledged that Garcias might have difficulty getting a fair hearing on their claims that the church misrepresented what they did with the money they donated to the church’s Florida operations. Having left the church, they are considered “suppressive persons.” No Scientologists are allowed to speak to them.

Still, the judge said, he had no choice but to allow Scientologists to decide the dispute. Constitutional guarantees of separation of church and state prohibit secular courts from deciding cases that turn on religious doctrine, he ruled.

Further, he said, during the 30 years they were devout Scientologists, Luis Garcia signed more than 40 documents in which he agreed that any dispute would be decided by “solely and exclusively through Scientology’s Internal Ethics, Justice and binding religious arbitration procedures.”

But, Babbitt said, Whittemore tried to assure the process would be fair. He issued court orders, prohibiting Scientology leaders from talking with the panelists and panelist from getting direction from church leaders. Further, church leaders promised that the Garcias would be allowed to present their case and Babbitt would be allowed to assist them. None of their promises came true, Babbitt said.

Suspecting that the arbitration panel would rule against the Garcias, Babbitt planned on appealing Whittemore’s decision in hopes an appeals court would order that the lawsuit be tried in federal court. The Garcias’ lawsuit is to be a test case for roughly a dozen of other disgruntled Scientologists. Further, the Garcias plan to try to file suit in California to recover another roughly $700,000 they contributed to the church’s operation there.

The church’s handling of the arbitration may negate the need for an appeal, Babbitt said. He said he is hopeful Whittemore will throw out the panel’s decision and order a trial once he reads the church’s response to his claims.

“It’s of monumental importance,” Babbitt said of Whittemore’s decision which won’t come for months. “If this … allows us to go forward and have a jury trial, it opens the door to many, many people who have claims against Scientology.”

 Scientologists ‘committed fraud upon the court’ West Palm lawyer claims

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