A federal judge has denied a motion by the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against Scientology and its drug rehab network, Narconon, but arrived at something of a compromise in a way that we think readers will find interesting.
Beginning a year ago in August, we began telling you about attorney Jeff Harris and his investigation of Scientology’s facility in the Atlanta area, Narconon Georgia, for an unlawful death lawsuit. That suit was settled, but not before Harris uncovered damning evidence that Narconon Georgia’s officials had withheld evidence and lied about it, leading to censure by a local judge. Then, evidence of insurance fraud led to a criminal investigation of Narconon Georgia and a raid of the facility by local and state agencies in April.
In June, Jeff Harris filed a class-action lawsuit against Narconon Georgia and its parent organizations, including the Religious Technology Center, the nominally controlling entity of Scientology. Harris is representing multiple clients who say they were victimized by Narconon and are suing for fraud, deceptive practices and negligence.
Harris already has the documents he pried out of Narconon Georgia after three long years of hard-fought discovery in the settled wrongful death lawsuit — but imagine what there must be in the truckload of evidence that was hauled away in the April raid. Harris wants to make sure his clients benefit from that material, so he filed a motion asking federal Judge Steve C. Jones to order the state of Georgia to hold on to that material, even if it brings no charges as the result of its investigation.
When Harris filed that motion, we wondered if he was being overcautious — we found it hard to believe that the state wouldn’t be filing any charges as a result of its investigation. But after this week, that’s not so farfetched.
On Wednesday, we reported that Narconon Georgia had cut a deal with the state that would allow it to escape prosecution if it surrendered its license and shut down. Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter, who made the deal for the state, told us that his investigation is ongoing and he may still prosecute individuals. (Yesterday, we reported that not everyone is happy about that deal.)
And now, Judge Jones has made his decision about Harris’s motion about preserving records from the raid. He denied, in part, Harris’s request that the state be ordered to hold on to the documents. Jones reasoned that this would put too much of a burden on the state. However, he did not ignore Narconon Georgia’s miserable record telling the truth, so he ordered, in case the state releases the raid evidence, that Narconon Georgia’s attorneys take possession of that evidence, with the assumption that those attorneys were more trustworthy than their client.
“Erring on the side of caution given NNGA’s previous misconduct, the Court believes NNGA’s counsel should retain control of the seized evidence,” he wrote. “NNGA is hereby directed, in the event the State notifies NNGA that the seized evidence will be returned, to have its counsel assume custody of the seized evidence for the duration of this litigation.”
We asked a member of our legal team for some thoughts on the order: “No lawyer will risk disbarment by allowing spoliation of evidence. Of course there is always the possibility that when the state notifies Narconon Georgia, it may ‘forget’ to notify its lawyers, and when it ‘remembers,’ some mishap may have ‘accidentally’ destroyed the evidence. For this reason, Harris should ask that Narconon Georgia’s lawyers be contacted directly by the state. That way, ‘accidental’ destruction is minimized.”
We’ve asked Jeff Harris for a comment, and we’ll add it if we hear from him.
UPDATE: Here’s Jeff Harris’s statement about the deal that shut down Narconon Georgia…
On behalf of the Desmonds I’m glad this place is shut down. Every person who went to Narconon of Georgia was risking their lives and their recovery. It has been a long hard slog that all began with the completely preventable death of a fantastic young man who was loved by everyone he encountered. The strength and courage displayed by his parents made me incredibly proud to represent them. I also had the pleasure of representing Mary Morton, who along with the Desmond’s played a major role in Narconon’s downfall. She is as tough as they come. When Mary Rieser crossed Mary Morton, she sealed Narconon of Georgia’s fate.
I seriously doubt they will ever open again in Georgia, and if they try we will all be there ready to remind the State licensing authorities about the past. It is a lot easier to deny a license than to rescind one. This victory (and I know there are those unhappy about certain aspects of the deal, but it is a victory) was largely brought on by the amazing press coverage this story received in Atlanta. Pete Combs, who is a true journalist in a world filled with Sean Hannity-like blowhards, Christian Boone, and Jodie Fleischer all worked on numerous stories that pulled the veil off what Narconon was really doing. I suppose that’s the formula for now getting rid of the rest of these places: Tough committed citizens, unrelenting legal action, and journalists acting like journalists should. I suspect there is more to come. Danny Porter is a very savvy DA.
Now Godspeed to my friend and brother trial lawyer Gary Richardson in Oklahoma. Arrowhead is next.
Here’s the judge’s order…
Posted by Tony Ortega on September 27, 2013 at 07:00
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