SALT LAKE CITY (CN) - The Utah Supreme Court advanced claims by a girl who says the fundamentalist Mormon church forced her into an underage marriage with her cousin.
Using her initials, M.J., says she was just 14 when she was forced to marry her first cousin, Allen Steed, in 2001.
M.J. says Warren Jeffs, the now-incarcerated head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints, presided over the wedding and repeatedly refused to grant her a divorce, though Steed raped and sexually assaulted her repeatedly.
Though Jeffs was sentenced in 2011 to life in prison plus 20 years for sexually assaulting two other girls he viewed as his "spiritual wives," the self-proclaimed prophet is said to still control the church from behind bars.
M.J. sued Jeffs in 2007 along with Bruce Wisan, the man tasked with administering the church's $110 million United Effort Plan Trust, which Utah seized two years earlier.
Last week, the Utah Supreme Court affirmed a finding that the trust is not entitled to summary judgment on the bulk of M.J.'s claims.
"Given Jeffs' unique role as leader of the FLDS Church, and in light of the unusual, troubling function of plural marriage involving young brides in the FLDS culture, we hold that a reasonable factfinder could conclude that Jeffs was acting within the scope of his role as a trustee in directing Steed to engage in sexual activity with M.J.," Chief Justice Thomas Lee wrote for the four-member panel. "We affirm the denial of the trust's summary judgment motion on that basis."
Though M.J. has since dropped her claims against Steed as part of a settlement prompted by the cousin's counterclaims for invasion of privacy, libel and slander, Lee said this development does not help the church.
Lee likewise refused to clear the trust on the basis of its court-ordered secular reformation.
Before the court installed Wisan, the trust under Jeffs' leadership owned virtually all land, housing, and financial assets in the polygamous towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, and assigned men tracts of land to live on. Population in the twin communities is estimated at 6,000 to 10,000.
Church-owned machine shops, which sold airplane parts to the federal government, netted a reported $1.7 million from 1998 to 2007.
In the trust's sole win from the March 23 ruling, the court blocked M.J. from asserting a right to "reverse veil piercing" - a maneuver that would
Trust should be liable under the doctrine of treat trust assets as if they were Jeffs' personal assets.
"This is not a case involving a limited number of shareholders or trustees," the 26-page ruling states. "The trust's beneficiaries, rather, include innocent third parties whose interests could be adversely affected if the trust's veil is pierced. Some of those beneficiaries may themselves have claims against the trust. And because those claims could be jeopardized by the remedy of reverse veil-piercing, and M.J. has access to a legal remedy under the doctrine of respondeat superior, we conclude that this is not an appropriate case for reverse piercing."
The Justice Department separately sued the border towns in 2012 in Arizona, claiming they discriminated against people who do not belong to Jeffs' church by denying them access to water, utilities and police protection.
Police failed to investigate claims of child abuse or timely complete reports, an expert witness recently testified in the proceedings.
That trial took a week-long recess amid concerns that jury members had seen news reports that church leaders were arrested on food stamp fraud charges, and resumed in early March.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.