Vance Woodward is one of our favorites here at the Underground Bunker. We greatly enjoyed the book he wrote about his time in Scientology (now no longer for sale), and he helped us write one of our favorite series, as we blogged L. Ron Hubbard’s 1950 classic Dianetics from cover to cover.
In 2014, Vance filed suit against the Church of Scientology, seeking a refund on about $200,000 that he still had on account for courses that he never took in the church, and also for other damages he’d suffered as a Scientologist. Vance first got into Scientology at 14 in 1989 in Winnipeg, and later became an active member of the San Francisco org, where he estimated that he paid more than $600,000 in just three years before leaving the church in 2010.
After Vance gave up Scientology, he decided to turn his skills as a lawyer to suing the church. But he ran into trouble when his complaint turned out to be about much more than the money he wanted back. He included a voluminous (and highly readable!) condemnation of how Scientology worked to draw people in and clean them out. In court, Scientology pounced on the scattershot approach of Vance’s complaint. It filed an “anti-SLAPP” motion — a way for defendants to stop a lawsuit in its tracks by asking the judge to rule whether there’s really a chance that it will prevail. California’s anti-SLAPP law is particularly strong, and Judge Michael Johnson of the Los Angeles Superior Court ended up agreeing with the church, that Vance’s complaint went after a lot of things that had nothing to do with a refund, and that got into territory that was probably covered by Scientology’s First Amendment rights of religious expression.
He granted the anti-SLAPP motion, dismissing the lawsuit, and also awarded Scientology $90,000 in attorney’s fees (after the church had asked for $120,000).
Vance’s loss helped to illustrate why so few attorneys are willing to take on litigation against Scientology, which has a legendary reputation for scorched-earth tactics and never giving up when it can delay or attack. If you take on Scientology, you can end up finding yourself the one in the hole.
Vance, however, decided to appeal, and he sounded confident about it. But now, California’s Second Appellate District has affirmed the lower court ruling, including the $90,000 award in attorney’s fees.
We tried to reach Vance by email and telephone, but we didn’t get through to him. In the past, he hasn’t wanted to talk publicly about his litigation, and that may be the case this time as well.
But more than wanting to hear his thoughts about the court’s decision, we wanted to ask him about what he might do now.
We turned for some advice on that to TX Lawyer, an attorney in Texas who works in the appellate courts there. Hey, Tex, what are Vance’s options?
The first thing I note here is that the opinion is not designated for publication in the official case reports. I’ve seen appellate courts try to hide bad opinions by withholding them from publication, but it is far, far more common that they do it for a more legitimate reason that they don’t think the case presents any significant legal issues and don’t want anybody to think this is an important decision. My bet is that it’s the latter here, not the former.
This was an appeal to one of California’s intermediate appellate courts, specifically the Court of Appeal for the Second District that covers appeals from Los Angeles County and a few more counties up the coast. The California Supreme Court has jurisdiction to review cases coming to them from the Courts of Appeal, but the California Supreme Court uses a system of discretionary review, so the great majority of attempted appeals to that court are just summarily denied. Based on numbers alone, Vance would face long odds at getting the California Supremes to take up his case.
One factor that may favor appealing the state supreme court is that California does not allow a judgment creditor (which is what the Church now, vis a vis Vance) cannot begin to collect on a judgment until the losing party has exhausted all of their appeals. So if Vance wants to delay having to pay, that could factor into his decision making here.
The opinion here is pretty brutal to Vance’s cause. For the first eight pages, the court just lays out the parties’ competing arguments to the trial court and the trial judge’s explanation of his ruling against Vance. After that, the justices basically tear apart Vance’s position pretty mercilessly. They even go out of their way to point out in a footnote that he’s way off base claiming that one of the Church’s out-of-state lawyers is engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, since they granted his motion to appear pro hac vice.
Obviously, the way Vance drafted his complaint in the trial court ended up doing him no favors here. The court rejects his argument that this is just a breach of contract claim by citing the lengthy description Vance devoted to the Church’s structure, beliefs, and practices. On that record, they have no problem determining that the claim arose out of Vance’s dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the Church’s religious services, and those services are protected by the First Amendment. Hence, the California anti-SLAPP act applies.
Assuming Vance either declines to take the case to the California Supreme Court, or if he does take it up and is unsuccessful, he would probably be well advised to write the Church another check, if he has the ability to do so. When judgment debtors don’t pay up, the judgment creditors can start using the courts to discover, seize, and sell assets, with the proceeds to be applied against the judgment until it is satisfied in full. That is an exceedingly painful process, and it typically ends up costing the debtor way more than the actual judgment would have. Many judgment debtors end up filing bankruptcy to short-circuit the process, and that has its own set of perils.
Sometimes, of course, it is possible for a judgment debtor to work out a deal for the creditor to take a haircut on the full amount of the judgment in exchange for the certainty of getting paid some smaller amount in cash or property without having to go through the collections process. But Scientology will undoubtedly be fighting this on principle — the principle of inflicting as much pain as possible on a courtroom opponent. Is it in their character to take one penny less than they are owed here?
That’s not a great set of options. But we sure hope that whatever Vance does, he’s able to keep his sense of humor. We really miss his writing on Scientology, and hope someday he’ll get back to it.
Here’s the decision from the appellate court. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on it…
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Our book, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology tried to destroy Paulette Cooper, is on sale at Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions. We’ve posted photographs of Paulette and scenes from her life at a separate location. Reader Sookie put together a complete index. More information about the book, and our 2015 book tour, can also be found at the book’s dedicated page.
Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…
BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of L.A. attorney and former church member Vance Woodward
UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists
GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice
SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts
Other links: Shelly Miscavige, ten years gone | The Lisa McPherson story told in real time | The Cathriona White stories | The Leah Remini ‘Knowledge Reports’ | Hear audio of a Scientology excommunication | Scientology’s little day care of horrors | Whatever happened to Steve Fishman? | Felony charges for Scientology’s drug rehab scam | Why Scientology digs bomb-proof vaults in the desert | PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer | The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill | Scientology boasts about assistance from Google | The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ
Our Guide to Alex Gibney’s film ‘Going Clear,’ and our pages about its principal figures…
Jason Beghe | Tom DeVocht | Sara Goldberg | Paul Haggis | Mark “Marty” Rathbun | Mike Rinder | Spanky Taylor | Hana Whitfield