Scientology Wins Appeal In Lawsuit Alleging Forced Labor and Forced Abortions


California’s federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals today posted its affirmation of a lower court’s decision to dismiss a lawsuit against the Church of Scientology brought by two of its former employees, Marc and Claire Headley.

The Headleys had worked at Scientology’s International Base near Hemet, California until they left it in 2005.

They sued in 2009, claiming that as Sea Org members making about $50 a week for 100-hour weeks of work and with the prospect of being hunted down if they dared to leave, that they had been victims of human trafficking violations. Claire also alleged that twice she had been forced to have abortions in order to keep up that level of work, and had been threatened that she would be separated from her husband and kicked out if she didn’t terminate her pregnancies.

Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain of the Ninth Circuit found, however, that the Headleys had many opportunities to leave their jobs and the Sea Org but did not do so, undercutting their claims that they were forced to work under terrible conditions.

I just called Marc Headley, who was unaware of the decision.

“Well, we did what we could do,” he said. And he told me he has other things to focus on. “We have our third kid on the way.”

The LA Times summarizes the decision well. From their story:

“In keeping with church disciplinary policy, the church censored the Headleys’ mail, monitored their phone calls, and required them to obtain permission to access the Internet,” Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain, an appointee of former President Reagan, wrote for the court.

Marc and hundreds of others had to hand clean human excrement from an aeration pond in 2004, and Claire had to subsist on protein bars and water for six to eight months in 2002, O’Scannlain wrote. But the court said the evidence overwhelmingly showed that the Headleys voluntarily worked for the Sea Org “because they believed that it was the right thing to do” and “enjoyed it.”

Although the couple faced the risk of being declared “suppressive persons” and possibly losing contact with family and friends if they left, that potential did not qualify as “serious harm” under the human trafficking law, the court concluded.

And Marty Rathbun’s take:

The “church” will call this a landmark victory. Miscavige will certainly be tickled pink. After all, they have once again thrown L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology under the bus of public opinion. They have created a Circuit Court opinion that finds a lot of creepy behavior is motivated by belief in the Scientology religion.

Those who have been watching know that in the end it was Marc and Claire Headley who won the bigger victory. We know for a fact that the filing of the suit (and all the sweat, blood and tears Marc and Claire spilled in litigating it) resulted in cancellation of Scientology Inc’s forced abortion policy. It also resulted in dozens of former Sea Org members receiving substantial compensation (pay offs to remain silent – but compensation to create new lives nonetheless).

And, who can tell us how many people were spared the more drastic versions of the following at the hands of Miscavige because the Headley’s stepped up?

And some thoughts from our legal expert, Manhattan attorney Scott Pilutik:

It’s not an unreasonable interpretation of the Trafficking statute, though it’s unfortunate that the Circuit court upheld the abuse of discretion of argument regarding Dr. Levine’s psychological coercion testimony, which was obviously key to supporting the argument under the statute. The statute requires some showing that they at least felt reasonably threatened. Without Levine’s testimony explaining why it was reasonable for Marc and Claire to be unable to just up and leave, it was only their word against a cult deeply determined to defeat this case.

With regard to some comments I’m seeing opining whether this was brought under the “right” or “wrong” law, I’ll mention that there is an inherent risk-reward component here. In baseball terms, if you swing for the fences you’re more likely to hit a home run… but you’re also more likely to strike out. If the Headleys’ human trafficking case was successful, it would have had a massive impact on how Scientology treats its staff members going forward. I don’t recall why the labor law claims didn’t survive, so I’ll leave that alone for now.

The decision also contained a minor victory inasmuch as it declined to rule on (and thus bolster) Scientology’s ministerial exception claim, especially since it appeared to be leaning in favor of the District Court’s interpretation. Within that dicta, however, I’m unpersuaded by the court’s somehow equating “lifestyle constraints, assignment to manual labor, and strict discipline, [et al.]” to be religiously motivated, else anyone’s acceptance of horrific working conditions be also construed as “religiously motivated.” The work performed by Claire and Marc was of a sort that Scientology could have relatively easily replaced them with personnel having zero knowledge or interest in Scientology.

I’m going to post the entire decision by O’Scannlain here.

See also:
Scientology’s president and the death of his son: our complete coverage
What Katie is saving Suri from: Scientology interrogation of kids
Scientology’s new defections: Hubbard’s granddaughter and Miscavige’s dad
Scientology’s disgrace: our open letter to Tom Cruise
Scientology crumbling: An entire mission defects as a group
Scientology leader David Miscavige’s vanished wife: Where’s Shelly?

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Tony Ortega has been the editor in chief of the Village Voice since March, 2007. He started writing about Scientology in 1995. You can catch his alerts at Twitter (@VoiceTonyO), at his Facebook author page, on Pinterest, and even this new Google Plus doohickey.

New readers might want to check out our primer, “What is Scientology?” Another good overview is our series from last summer, “Top 25 People Crippling Scientology.” At the top of every story, you’ll see the “Scientology” category which, if you click on it, will bring up all of our most recent stories.

As for hot subjects we’ve covered here, you may have heard about Debbie Cook, the former church official who rebelled and was sued by Scientology. You might have also heard about the Super Power Building, Scientology’s “Mecca,” whose secrets were revealed here. We also reported how Scientology spied on its own most precious object, Tom Cruise. (We wrote Tom an open letter that he has yet to respond to.) Have you seen a Scientology ad on TV lately? We debunked some of the claims in that 2-minute commercial you might have seen while watching Glee or American Idol.

Other stories have looked at Scientology’s policy of “disconnection” that is tearing families apart. You may also have heard something about the Sea Org experiences of the Paris sisters, Valeska and Melissa, and their friend Ramana Dienes-Browning. We’ve also featured Paulette Cooper, who wrote about Scientology back in the day, and Janet Reitman, Hugh Urban, and the team at the Tampa Bay Times, who write about it today. And there’s plenty more coming.