Mormon Law: The First Half of 2010

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By Jeff Breinholt

On the East Coast this past 4th of July weekend, it was hotter than blazes.  In addition, to heat, the arrival of Independence Day means we are halfway through 2010.  In the first six months of this year, how hot is “Mormon Law” – litigation over the role of the LDS Church in society?

Mormon Law can be divided into two categories. There are the Mormon vs. non-Mormon controversies (like employment, family law, and intellectual property cases), and cases pitting Mormons against the government (criminal, asylum, and benefits cases, and prisoner lawsuits).  To qualify as a Mormon Law case, the LDS Church must be relevant to a judicial opinion.  Thanks to the good people of Westlaw and their automatic alert system, it is easy to keep up on these cases in real-time.

In 2010, we see 16 Mormon Law cases so far. It means that we are likely to see fewer such cases in 2010 as in 2009 (50 cases), or in 2008 (63) or 2007 (71).  This downward trajectory suggests that Mormon Law is cooling down.  So far this year, we see employment cases, cases challenging Mormons for bias, cases involving delusional Mormons, and cases involving asylum, family law, intellectual property, teaching materials, and prison conditions.

Employment Actions

The most interesting (and numerous) Mormon vs. non-Mormon legal controversies are employment cases   As I noted in my earlier writings, Mormons are usually the ones being sued by non-Mormons rather than the opposite.  The 2010 cases do not follow this trend; instead, there are more Mormon plaintiffs than LDS defendants.
In Tennessee, an ex-Mormon truck driver named Jerri Leigh Jackson sued a trucking company after it refused to allow her to participate in a training program. She claimed that “Mormons run and operate [the trucking company],” and that “[a]n excommunicated Mormon is dog meat to a Mormon run business.”  Jackson v. Swift Transport,  2010 WL 1439939 (M.D.Tenn. 2010); Jackson v. Swift Transport Co., 2010 WL 1439842 (M.D.Tenn. 2010).  In Hawaii, Edward J. Aga claimed that his Mormon employer discriminated against him, and that the Mormon employees got preferential treatment. Aga v. Winter, 2010 WL 145285 (D.Hawai‘I 2010)

On the other side of the scale are Mormon employees who sued their non-Mormon employers.

A Mormon named David C. Stoddard sued the U.S. Army for a hostile working environment.  His claim was based in part on an incident in which a colleague called him a cracker and asked him how many wives he had.  Stoddard v. Geren, 2010 WL 774156 (S.D.Tex. 2010). In Colorado, Mark Eugene Howard claimed that he was subjected to a hostile working environment at the Las Animas Sheriff’s Department, in that his colleagues told him he was “insane,” “delusional,” and “psychotic” because of his LDS Church membership and conspired to have him committed to a mental hospital. Howard v. Las Animas County Sheriff’s Office, 2010 WL 1235668 (D.Colo. 2010). Irena Dolgalvea alleged that a Virginia school district discriminated against her on the basis of her Russian national origin when it did not immediately hire her for a posted position as a Russian teacher, which had already been filled by another applicant by the time she interviewed for it. School officials told her that her superior credentials and teaching experience were worthless because, among other things, she had previously taught at Brigham Young University. Dolgaleva v. Virginia Beach City Public Schools, 2010 WL 325957 (4th Cir. 2010).

Allegedly Biased Mormon Judges and Jurors

Martin Ventress, a black flight engineer, sued Japan airlines, alleging violations of California’s whistleblower statute, wrongful termination, and emotional distress.  The court confirmed the arbitration award in favor of the airline.  Ventress appealed, arguing that the Mormon arbitrator was biased against him.  He claimed that the arbitrator was a trustee for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which demonstrated an ideology of “rational nationalism;” was a graduate of the Kamehameha School, which offers preference to Native Hawaiian applicants; and belonged to the Mormon Church, which Ventress claimed “had a long-standing reputation of racial bias against blacks.” These affiliations, he asserted, established “evident partiality” by the arbitrator. The Ninth Circuit ruled that Ventress “has offered only bald allegations of partiality without any, much less persuasive, evidence to support these claims.” Ventress v. Japan Airlines, 603 F.3d 676 (9th Cir. 2010)

In an Idaho property dispute, one of the litigants claimed that the judge was biased, which the appellate court described as “borderline-offensive ravings concerning the judge’s suspected affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, an affiliation that Judge St. Clair expressly disaffirmed in his order denying Bach’s motion for recusal.” Bach v. Bagley, 148 Idaho 784, 229 P.3d 1146 (Idaho 2010).

Jesus Rene Quintero, a criminal defendant, challenged the prosecution’s striking of a Hispanic prospective juror.  The prosecutor claimed that the decision was made because the potential juror was Mormon and seemed weak. Quintero v. State, 2010 WL 878995 (Tex.App.-Beaumont 2010).

Delusional Litigants

Paul Stephenson, sued the FBI, claiming it is keeping a record about him concerning his ability to cure illnesses and see into the future, and his belief that he will someday rise to become the president on the LDS Church. The court rejected his “very confusing” complaint.  Stephenson v. F.B.I., 2010 WL 2024704 (D.Utah 2010).

It was big news when Brian David Mitchell, Elizabeth Smart’s abductor, was ruled competent to stand trial, over his attorneys’ claim that his extreme religious views were manifestations of mental illness. U.S. v. Mitchell, — F.Supp.2d —-, 2010 WL 723729 (D.Utah 2010).

Cynthia Grandchamp filed an application for Supplemental Security Income alleging that she had been disabled and unable to work due to back pain, depression, anxiety and a personality disorder. A mental health professional noted that Grandchamp reported that she hears the voices of Satan and angels and that she sees fleeting shadows or images.  The court noted. as to the “voices” of the devil and angel, the professional considered those to be hallucinations, and apparently did not consider the fact that they may simply be Granchamp wrestling with her conscience, the report indicating that she was an active member of the LDS Church and had recently been put on probation by the church for “having sex with a guy” suggesting some religious overtones to her presentation.  Grandchamp v. Commissioner of Social Sec., 2010 WL 1064144 (E.D.Mich. 2010).

Asylum

Mazda Rasasy, a non-practicing Mormon native of Thailand and citizen of Laos, failed in his asylum claim.  Rasasy v. Attorney General of U.S.,  2010 WL 2093882 (3rd Cir. 2010).  A Mormon citizen of Colombia named William Herrera-Molina, similarly failed in his efforts to avoid being sent home.  Herrera-Molina v. Holder, 597 F.3d 128 (2nd Cir. 2010)

Educational Materials

A public charter school in Idaho sued to defend its right to use LDS educational materials, after the state school board prohibited it. Nampa Classical Academy v. Goesling, — F.Supp.2d —-, 2010 WL 1977434 (D.Idaho 2010).

Prisoner Litigation

Melvin Barhite, who was arrested as part of the Texas FLDS round-up, sued the prison when officials confiscated numerous photographs of scantily clad young women in provocative poses.  Barhite v. Caruso, 2010 WL 1957493 (6th Cir. 2010)

Intellectual Property

The Owner of trademark for “Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” brought a successful infringement action against competitor. Community of Christ Copyright Corp. v. Devon Park Restoration, 683 F.Supp.2d 1006 (W.D.Mo. 2010).

Family Law

In a parental termination proceeding, an LDS Church official testified about the parenting skills of one of the parents. In re T.M.J., — S.W.3d —-, 2010 WL 2542938 (Tex.App.-Beaumont 2010).

What is somewhat surprising is what we do not yet see in 2010, given the trajectories of what I have written about elsewhere.  For example, there is not a single case in 2010 involving a Mormon criminal defendant who injects his/her church membership into the proceedings, and there is not yet any case in 2010 involving Mormon-related sex abuse .

Stay tuned ….

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Comments 3

  1. This is interesting. Thanks for sharing. How does this list compare to cases where the church itself was a party to the action? (I would imagine the church gets sued often and sues infrequently, but that’s just a gut guess.)

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