I wrote about the insidious strategy apparently behind these nine lawsuits here. In each and every complaint, the plaintiffs named the parish rector and its vestry as individual defendants, along with the parish corporation. Since, when responding to a complaint in California, each defendant appearing in the case has to pay a $355 appearance fee, this particular complaint cost St. John's $4,970 (= 14 x $355) to answer, because in addition to the corporation, the suit named thirteen individual defendants. (And that, of course, does not take into account the legal fees incurred.)
The object of each of these complaints is to have the court order the parish corporation to surrender all of its real and personal property -- building, grounds, bank accounts, hymnals and prayer books -- to Bishop Lamb's kindly management and control, which would in nearly all cases result in everything's immediately being sold, because there are not enough persons "remaining Episcopalian" in each of these parishes to pay for their upkeep, let alone for a rector's salary and benefits. Thus their main objective is to punish, and to cause the defendants to waste even more money on litigation.
The thirteen individual defendants sued in Stockton, however, decided not to answer Bishop Lamb's complaint, but to file what is called in California a "demurrer" to it. A demurrer, in effect, says to the court: "So what if everything the plaintiff alleges in his complaint were true? Even if you regarded everything true as pled, the plaintiff still has not stated a claim on which you can grant any relief."
The vestry and rector of St. John's (Father Lee Nelson) thus challenged the sufficiency of Bishop Lamb's complaint against them, individually. They argued that since it was the parish corporation that owned legal title to all the property, there was no point in suing them for the property as well. They were legally the officers and directors of the parish corporation, to be sure; but in that capacity, they do not have any right to own or possess the corporate assets.
And last Thursday, in Stockton, Superior Court Judge Lesley D. Holland agreed with the defendants. He rejected Bishop Lamb's arguments that the individuals needed to be sued so that they could be ordered to vacate the property. He pointed out that Bishop Lamb had already sued the corporation itself, and that was sufficient in order to obtain the relief that he was requesting. There was no need to sue the corporate officers and directors as well.
Here is a link to the minute order entered by the court. You will see that at first the judge made no tentative ruling on the demurrer, but ordered both sides to appear and present oral argument. Then, after hearing the arguments, the court ruled that the defendants' demurrer to the complaint "is sustained without leave to amend."
That is magic language a court uses when it wishes to tell a plaintiff not only that he has failed to state a claim for relief, but that there are no possible amendments he could make to his complaint which would remedy the defect, either. So as far as Judge Holland is concerned, the case against Father Nelson and his vestry members is over.
This little ruling has a number of consequences for 815's ongoing strategy in San Joaquin. First, it could serve as precedent for similar rulings in the eight other lawsuits pending against the other incorporated parishes. Because of that fact, Bishop Lamb and his attorneys will almost be forced to take an appeal in an attempt to reverse it. (Any such appeal from this ruling, however, would go to the Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento. That is a different court from the one in Fresno that recently ruled in Bishop Schofield's favor in the suit pending there.)
Second, any such appeal will likely mean a further postponement in the object of 815's San Joaquin strategy: to run up the defendants' litigation costs. Appeals take at least eighteen months to two years to resolve, and it is the parties appealing the judgment who will incur the bulk of the costs on appeal. But most of the time, once the briefs are all filed, there is nothing to do but wait for the court to get around to scheduling oral argument, which typically involves a delay of twelve to eighteen months from the time the last brief is on file.
But third (and perhaps best of all), this ruling could cause 815's strategy of running up the defendants' costs by suing them all individually to backfire. For if Bishop Lamb does not appeal Judge Holland's ruling and it becomes final (or if he does appeal, but loses), then each of the thirteen defendants will be entitled to recover their court costs from Bishop Lamb and his group. And that will include the $4,615 they had to pay to the court to file their successful demurrer. If that scenario repeats itself eight more times in the other pending lawsuits, Bishop Lamb's San Joaquin group might have to get a bigger line of credit from the masterminds at 815 Second Avenue.