Monday, January 24, 2011

A Small but Significant Victory for St. John's, Stockton

Last August 30, Provisional Bishop Jerry A. Lamb and his plaintiff diocese filed a separate lawsuit against St. John's Anglican Church, in Stockton. (Here is a copy of the complaint which you can view or download.) This was just one of nine such lawsuits brought individually against each of the incorporated parishes which had left the Episcopal Church (USA) in December 2007 along with their Diocese, which had voted at its convention that month to adopt the final changes to its governing documents to align itself with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone.

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.


  1. I have to wonder if TEc might still consider the money spent to have been a good investment. Despite the ruling, won't other vestries be looking over their shoulders because of these phoney salvoes fired at the vestry of St. John's, Stockton?

  2. Perhaps as to lawsuits already on file, UP, that would be true. But if they name any more individual vestry members without getting this ruling reversed, that would be setting themselves up for charges of malicious prosecution.

  3. How is it that such an appearance fee imposed on the defendant is lawful/constitutional? You can't even move to dismiss a nonsensical, rambling mess labeled "lawsuit" unless you cough up?

  4. chrylis, the filing fees are imposed by the courts to finance the cost of their facilities -- clerks' office, law libraries, etc. If you are served with a "mess" of a lawsuit, yes, you have to pay your filing fee to make an appearance to have the suit dismissed, and then you can be reimbursed your filing fees by the defendant -- if s/he has any money.

    Someone who makes a business out of filing worthless lawsuits can be tagged by a judge as a "vexatious litigant", and then they have to post a bond before they are allowed to file any more complaints.

  5. I hope that Bishop Lamb's tactics come back to bite him in the derriere. That would be poetic justice!

  6. Marvelous news !!!
    It is so heartening to hear something positive for once.

    Heartiest congratulations to all the attorneys, consultants, and strategists representing the parishes involved !

    And kudos to the judge for having the courage to rule against Lamb et al in this matter.

    Sadly, I cannot help but think that far too many other judges hearing these TEC cases unfortunately could be more concerned about their own re-elections and how the LGBT lobby could turn on them rather than doing the job they were elected to do.

    Some mindlessly seem to just go along with bad precedents, bad reasoning, and plain old fashioned bad law, letting the appellate courts and higher take the brunt of TEC's et al's ire.

    Hopefully we will see more and more astute judges take the time to carefully consider the true significance and essential ramifications of these important cases.

    A few have, already. Hopefully there will be more.
    May the Good Lord truly bless and lead each and every one of them.

  7. I understand the rationale for requiring individuals bringing suit to pay court fees, and possibly some fees on the defendant's side; it's just that the requirement to pay $350 to prevent a default judgment surprises me (though I would guess that indigent defendants can probably get it waived).

    Any chances of getting ECUSA labeled vexatious? O:-)

  8. The fee is actually $395. At least that's what we wrote the check for! Thanks for a wonderful article.