Lawyers Had No Duty to Followers of Mormon ‘Prophet,’ 10th Circuit Hears

DENVER (CN) – The law firm who helped “prophet” Warren Jeffs manage his church’s trust claims had no obligation to individual members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the firm’s attorney told a 10th Circuit panel on Wednesday.

Snow, Christensen & Martineau asked the 10th Circuit to uphold a federal judge’s dismissal of claims brought by 30 former sect members as time-barred this past January. The firm’s attorney said the firm had a duty only to Jeffs, not individual members of the church.

“Plaintiffs contend that a lawyer has a duty to individuals to tell them their prophet is false and that they should get out of the church,” attorney Mark James of the Salt Lake City firm Hatch, James & Dodge, representing Snow Christensen, told the 10th Circuit panel.

Jeffs was convicted in 2011 of sexually assaulting two of his more than two dozen child brides. He is serving a life sentence in Palestine, Texas.

The 121-page lawsuit brought by the former church members says attorney Rodney Parker and Snow Christensen played an instrumental role in Jeffs gaining and holding absolute power.

“In view of the growing threat of prosecution resulting from Utah’s increased stringency in the enforcement of laws prohibiting the sexual violation of children, Jeffs sought legal advice from Parker and SC&M to find ways of tightening his control over the FLDS,” the former members say in their complaint. “Parker and SC&M contrived a complex and detailed scheme to manipulate the law in such a fashion to not only take advantage of the relatively lax marital laws of Nevada, but to create a new enterprise, under the guise of the existing FLDS Church, which would be legally structured to give Jeffs absolute control over all of the bodies, possessions, homes and funds of the FLDS as beneficiaries of the UEP (United Effort Plan) Trust.”

The law firm “develop(ed) the legal framework within which Jeffs and his favored cohorts would possess means to enforce their lewd, sadistic, tortious and criminal wishes upon the FLDS people,” the former members say.

In addition to aiding in a conspiracy to enforce underage marriages, the plaintiffs say the law firm violated their own individual attorney-client relationships. While none of the plaintiffs held engagement letters from the firm, their attorney Brett Godfrey of Godfrey Johnson in Englewood, Colo., told the 10th Circuit panel an attorney-client relationship was formed with individual members when Snow Christensen began representing the church.

“Our real claim is that the law firm repeatedly held itself to the public as acting for these individuals,” Godfrey said. “They acted believing the firm had their best interest in mind.”

Circuit Judge Carlos Lucero said, “It seems the beneficiaries of the trust became real clients.”

The former church members say Jeffs further enforced the notion that the firm represented the church’s members when he forced children into servitude to pay for legal fees.

“Jeffs also sought to expand the practice of using children in general as forced labor … to help pay for SC&M’s legal fees, which was the primary incentive for SC&M to participate in the scheme,” the complaint says. “By doing so, SC&M created a situation where virtually all members of the society it helped Jeffs to control were required to contribute large portions of any personal wealth they could accumulate to the payments made to SC&M, thus resulting in a situation where the victims were being forced to pay their lawyers to make them legally and functionally helpless in the presence of systematic human rights violations against them.”

Lucero asked attorney James, representing Snow Christensen: “Don’t they allege SC&M knew Jeffs was domineering and using the trust to hurt its beneficiaries?”

James replied, “They don’t allege what SC&M did, but what they didn’t do.”

Circuit Judge Mary Beck Briscoe and Senior Circuit Judge Stephanie Seymore rounded out the panel, which took the case under submission.


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