‘Arbitration,’ again: Here’s Scientology motion to derail new labor trafficking lawsuit
Last week, we reported that Scientology had tipped its hand that, once again, it would be trying to derail a lawsuit filed by former Scientologists with its “religious arbitration” strategy.
And now, we have the filings that the church put into the court record yesterday, multiple motions to compel arbitration and lengthy declarations intended to stop a new labor trafficking lawsuit before it really gets going.
Valeska Paris and two other Australian former Sea Org workers, Gawain and Laura Baxter, filed their lawsuit on April 28, alleging that they had been taken into Scientology’s paramilitary Sea Org as children, and then had endured neglect and abuse as they served on Scientology’s private cruise ship, the Freewinds.
Valeska also alleged that she was sexually abused by other Sea Org employees, and was punished when she dared to come forward. The lawsuit alleges that Valeska and the Baxters were victimized by a conspiracy of labor trafficking by the church.
Predictably, Scientology avoids any of the specific allegations of abuse, or of the plaintiffs working as children, and instead focuses on one issue over any other: All three plaintiffs had signed binding contracts as adult Sea Org workers that obliged them to take any grievance to Scientology’s own internal justice system, and not to a court of law.
The Flag Ship Service Organization (FSSO), the Scientology entity that operates the Freewinds and one of six defendants named in the lawsuit, says it found contracts signed by Gawain Baxter (2003), his wife Laura Baxter (2004), and Valeska Paris (2003) that all contained the binding arbitration language.
And almost right away, the motion points to the 2013 lawsuit filed by Luis and Rocio Garcia in the very same Tampa courtroom, which was forced into arbitration. But in this case, FSSO says, the reason for forcing the plaintiffs into arbitration is even more compelling than in the Garcia lawsuit.
The Garcias, they point out, were public parishioners, not employees, who had sued over what they claimed were fraudulent methods of convincing them to make large donations. But Valeska and the Baxters, FSSO says, were members of Scientology’s highest ecclesiastical order, the Sea Org, and so they were even more dedicated to Scientology’s internal justice rules (emphasis in the original)…
While Garcia is sufficient to enforce the agreements to arbitrate, additional facts discussed herein require the conclusion that this case must be arbitrated. In Garcia, the plaintiffs were lay parishioners and brought claims for refunds of donations. Here, however, Plaintiffs were members of Scientology’s religious order and their claims concern the circumstances of their service to the Church.
In 2003 and 2004, FSSO says, the Baxters signed copies of a “Religious Services Enrollment Application, Agreement and General Release” that contained the following language…
My freely given consent to be bound exclusively by the discipline, faith, internal organization, and ecclesiastical rule, custom, and law of the Scientology religion in all matters relating to Scientology Religious Services, in all my dealings of any nature with the Church, and in all my dealings of any nature with any other Scientology church or organization which espouses, presents, propagates or practices the Scientology religion means that I am forever abandoning, surrendering, waiving, and relinquishing my right to sue, or otherwise seek legal recourse with respect to any dispute, claim or controversy against the Church…
The agreement also has them promising to take disputes to Scientology’s own internal justice…
…will pursue resolution of that dispute, claim or controversy solely and exclusively through Scientology’s internal Ethics, Justice and binding religious arbitration procedures…
The Baxters signed similar agreements, FSSO says, when they left the Sea Org. And even after leaving the Sea Org, the Baxters also signed similar contracts for services as public Scientologists in 2015.
FSSO claims that Valeska signed the contracts with the arbitration clause in 2003 and again when she left the Sea Org in 2007, and then again as a public Scientologist in 2009, when she was 30. (This mention of her age, we assume, is to counter her allegations about being mistreated as a child in the complaint. If she was so abused as a child, why would she be signing agreements with the church as a 30 year old, the church appears to be implying.)
The ensuing legal argument, citing the Federal Arbitration Act, is very familiar to us from the other lawsuits by former Scientologists that we’ve seen derailed by this legal strategy.
And the church anticipates that the plaintiffs will argue that Scientology’s arbitration rules — which require, for example, that the proceeding includes a panel of three arbitrators who must be members of the church in good standing — are inherently unfair. Or, in legal terms, “procedurally and substantively unconscionable.”
Not only was that found not to be the case by a previous judge in this very courtroom in the Garcia lawsuit, but that decision was upheld by the Eleventh Circuit, which was not swayed by arguments of unconscionability.
In Garcia, former Church parishioners sought refunds of donations and payments they had made to FSO and FSSO. The Eleventh Circuit held that the same arbitration agreements at issue are not unconscionable and affirmed the Middle District of Florida’s orders (1) compelling Scientology religious arbitration and (2) denying a motion to vacate the resulting arbitration award….The Court rejected the argument that the arbitration agreements were procedurally unconscionable and held that the Garcia agreements — identical to the arbitration provisions in Plaintiffs’ Enrollment Agreements in this case — were “sufficiently definite,” to give the plaintiffs “some idea of the matters to be arbitrated and to provide some procedure to effect arbitration.”
Garcia also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that having “Scientologists in good standing” serve as arbitrators was substantively unconscionable. The Eleventh Circuit held that “the district court correctly ruled that the First Amendment prevented it from entertaining the argument that Scientology doctrine rendered the arbitration agreements substantively unconscionable.” To do so would have required the district court to decide whether the Garcias or the Church “more correctly perceived the commands of the [Scientology religion],” which is an exercise the First Amendment prohibits courts from engaging in.
In other words, even if Scientology’s arbitration setup is wildly unfair, the court is not in a position to make that judgment because doing so would violate Scientology’s “religious rights.”
And for good measure, Scientology wants it known that the Freewinds should not be called a “cruise ship.” We have called it that, but we’ve also referred to is as a “floating cathedral,” and apparently Scientology prefers something more along those lines…
Finally, the Freewinds is not a “cruise ship,” as Plaintiffs allege, open to believers and non-believers; it is a floating church and only members in the Sea Org may serve as its crew. Parishioners come from all over the world to participate in Scientology services on the Freewinds. The Freewinds also carries out a charitable and humanitarian mission throughout the Caribbean. Plaintiffs’ service in operating the Freewinds directly assisted and advanced the Scientology ministry to parishioners and the proselytization of Scientology.
In a separate motion to compel arbitration filed by the Flag Service Organization (FSO) the entity that runs Scientology’s “Flag Land Base” in Clearwater, Florida, Scientology’s attorneys also allege that the statute the plaintiffs are suing under, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization ACT (TVPRA), was revised by Congress in 2003, and it precludes the plaintiffs from seeking damages for any allegations dated before 2003. (In other words, none of the allegations that occurred when the plaintiffs were children.) But all of the post-2003 claims should also be tossed out, FSO says, because all of these allegations took place on the Freewinds when it was not in US waters and therefore is not subject to the TVPRA.
The FSO also says that the trafficking statute is inappropriate because the plaintiffs all left the Sea Org voluntarily and their labor was never forced, and the motion also claims that Valeska’s claims are all too old because she has been out of Scientology and speaking publicly of her abuses for more than ten years, which is beyond the statute of limitations.
For good measure, FSO submitted copies of articles featuring Valeska speaking out about her horrific treatment on the ship, including the piece we wrote for the Village Voice in 2011.
As of this morning, there was still no word about how David Miscavige was going to respond to the lawsuit. We assume that he’s going to have an attorney file a “special appearance” and object to being named a defendant. He’s the only one of the six defendants who has not yet been served the lawsuit, according to court records. Besides FSO and FSSO, the other three defendants are the Religious Technology Center (RTC), Church of Scientology International (CSI), and the IAS Administration (IASA).
CSI filed its own motion to dismiss yesterday, saying that it is a California corporation and does not operate the Freewinds, where the allegations took place. IASA similarly filed a motion to dismiss saying that it is a Delaware corporation and should not be included in the Florida lawsuit. And RTC also claims that it is a California corporation and should not be included. (Scientology always pulls this alphabet soup defense when it suits them.)
Valeska and the Baxters have a small army of skilled lawyers on their side, and we are very much looking forward to seeing how they respond to this salvo from Scientology.
Here are the motions from FSO and FSSO:
Mike Rinder’s memoir coming in September
One of the best reporting experiences we had at the Village Voice was flying down to Florida in 2012 to interview Mike Rinder. He had participated in the 2009 project “The Truth Rundown” at the Tampa Bay Times, but he hadn’t really given a lengthy interview about his own past and experience in Scientology. So we made sure to bring along a small camera and interviewed him and produced some short videos for the Voice.
We knew we were only scratching the surface though. Now, Mike has written his own memoir, and it’s coming out from a major publisher in September. We are especially interested in learning more about his years running Scientology’s secret police, the Office of Special Affairs.
David Miscavige cannot be happy about this.
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