DENVER (CN) – The 10th Circuit revived parts of a lawsuit Thursday brought by former members of the fundamentalist Mormon church against a law firm that they say conspired with the "prophet" Warren Jeffs to enforce underage marriages.
In July 2016, 30 former members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints sued Jeffs, attorney Rodney Parker, and the Snow, Christensen & Martineau law firm, alleging they conspired to help Jeffs tighten his reins on church members. The firm used to represent the church.
The church is led by Jeffs, who is serving a life prison term in Texas for sexually abusing two girls that he deemed his “spiritual wives.”
According to the 121-page lawsuit, Parker and the firm "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 Utah-run trust holds much of the property in the twin towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, where a large community of fundamentalist Mormons live and work.
U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart tossed the suit in 2017, finding the claims to be time-barred. U.S. Circuit Judge Stephanie Seymour upheld some of the dismissed claims while overturning others.
Writing on behalf of a three-judge panel Thursday, Seymour revived legal malpractice claims brought by half of the plaintiffs but left it for the federal judge to determine on remand whether equitable tolling applied and if individual attorney-client relationships existed.
"If individuals have been cut off from outside resources because of sincerely held religious beliefs and have been actively and repeatedly deceived as to an attorney’s responsibilities and allegiances towards them personally, it is plausible that they reasonably believed they were individually and collectively represented by that attorney," Seymour wrote.
She also revived claims brought under the Trafficking Victims Protections Reauthorization Act for nine of the plaintiffs, another matter she also wants the federal judge to address.
Under the trafficking law, plaintiffs detailed the control Jeffs had on every facet of their lives and how disobedience could cause them to lose homes, food, jobs and family.
"This domination was allegedly enabled through the reinstated trust and Mr. Jeffs’ resulting control of FLDS members’ property," Seymour wrote. "For example, one plaintiff claims he was ordered to pay more in religious 'contributions' upon threat of expulsion and that he did so out of fear of the 'repercussions for disobedience, which include expulsion from the FLDS Church and UEP Trust property where [he] both lived and worked.'"
A number of female plaintiffs detailed the marriages and child-rearing they were forced to enter into between the ages of 14 and 18 as evidence of labor violations under the trafficking law.
"Each of these plaintiffs was a teenager at the time she was purportedly ordered into a sexual relationship with a significantly older man – ordered by her prophet, whom she had been raised since birth to believe 'only does right,'" Seymour wrote.
Vulnerability of this type may be relevant in determining violations under the law, she found.
"In the same way, these plaintiffs’ youth and vulnerability, particularly with respect to the parties who were forcing them into this labor, contribute to the plausibility of their allegations," Seymour ruled.
Brent Hatch, an attorney representing Snow, Christensen & Martineau, said he was pleased the court upheld more than half the claims.
“As to the remaining claims, the 10th Circuit remanded to the district court for further findings to determine whether those claims can proceed,” Hatch said in a statement. “It is noteworthy that one of the appellate Judges voted to dismiss all the claims now without further review. We are confident that the remaining claims are indeed without merit and will be denied.”
In a dissent, U.S. Circuit Judge Mary Beck Briscoe found the majority's opinion did not stick to arguments made by the plaintiffs on appeal, and "does most of the heavy-lifting for plaintiffs in terms of fleshing out their claims, both factually and legally."
Briscoe found the dismissal of the lawsuit was supported by a lack of evidence of legal or other work that the law firm performed to support Jeffs’ scheme.
An attorney for the plaintiffs did not respond to a request for comment.
In March 2016, jurors in Phoenix awarded $2.2 million in damages to six individuals as part of a federal religious discrimination lawsuit that claimed the twin towns violated the rights of non-FLDS members by denying them water service, housing, and police protection.
Jeffs' brother, Lyle Jeffs, has run the day-to-day operations of the church since his brother was imprisoned. Lyle Jeffs was sentenced in 2017 to nearly five years of prison for food stamp fraud.
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