Tuesday, October 23, 2018
News Roundup

Federal judge sides with Scientology on refund issue

TAMPA — A federal judge has ruled in favor of the Church of Scientology, saying two former members must go through the church's internal arbitration process if they want a refund of more than $1.3 million in donations.

U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore issued a 21-page order Friday stating that plaintiffs Luis and Rocio Garcia are bound by contracts they signed during their 28 years with the church that require them to use the arbitration process to get their money back.

The Garcias' closely watched lawsuit, filed in 2013, alleges the church used fraudulent, deceptive and high-pressure tactics to solicit donations. But now that the order has put their refund demands in church hands, the federal court proceedings are at a standstill.

In addition to donations, the California couple said they also paid deposits on Scientology counseling services, training and accommodations that were never provided.

According to Whittemore, the hearing was limited to two subjects: whether the church had arbitration procedures that were applicable to the Garcias' claims and whether the contracts they signed were unconscionable — that is "whether the complaining party lacked a meaningful choice when entering into the contract" or if it was "so unfair that enforcement should be withheld."

The Garcias contend that, with Scientology conducting the arbitration, they would never get a fair hearing on their refunds because the church now considers them enemies called "suppressive persons" or SPs. But Whittemore said he could not analyze that issue because the First Amendment prohibits him from interpreting religious matters such as Scientology's doctrine on SPs.

The judge did side with the Garcias in acknowledging that the church "failed to provide any convincing evidence" that it had a working process in place to oversee arbitration.

Furthermore, Whittemore wrote, "There has never been an arbitration in the church, further supporting plaintiff's arguments that no rules and procedures for conducting arbitration exist."

But the judge said the absence of particular rules does not make the church's arbitration clause unenforceable.

Because the contract does include information on the number of arbitrators, how they'd be selected, what matters they could arbitrate and if the decision was binding, Whittemore said the contract satisfies the essential requirements under Florida law.

Representatives from the church's media relations office did not respond to requests for comment.

The Garcias' attorney, Theodore Babbitt of West Palm Beach, said Monday he was surprised by the ruling, as the judge seemed to agree with the plaintiffs on many of the issues. He said he is scheduled to meet with the Garcias on Wednesday to discuss their next steps.

"That's up in the air yet," Babbitt said. "They're still considering whether to file a motion for rehearing and also other options that we have."

Babbitt said those options include an appeal and proceeding with the arbitration under the church's rules.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443. Follow @cljohnst.

Comments
Will the trade winds blow for the Bucs?

Will the trade winds blow for the Bucs?

TAMPA — The New Orleans Saints are going for it. That was the consensus of NFL analysts after they traded for Giants cornerback Eli Apple Tuesday.The Dallas Cowboys aren't going away. At 3-4 and winless on the road this season, owner/general ma...
Updated: 21 minutes ago
Pinellas substitute teacher brings a gun to school, and is escorted out

Pinellas substitute teacher brings a gun to school, and is escorted out

Police removed a substitute teacher from Largo’s Anona Elementary School on Tuesday after discovering he was in possession of a gun, according to the Pinellas County school district.In a call to parents, principal Ann Welsh said the substitute, ident...
Updated: 28 minutes ago
From FitzMagic to Red Tide, 6 very Florida Halloween costumes

From FitzMagic to Red Tide, 6 very Florida Halloween costumes

We’re here to help you put together costumes that portray sweaty life in the Sunshine State, with its stench of fish and cast of unforgettable characters.
Updated: 1 hour ago
Former Lightning goalie Ben Bishop as you’ve never seen him before

Former Lightning goalie Ben Bishop as you’ve never seen him before

It's been a few years since Ben Bishop suited up for the Lightning, so it's reasonable to think he might look a bit different than we remember.But, this?Bishop, now tending goal for the Stars, was the talk of the Twitter-verse after photos appeared o...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Tampa prosecutor: Yahoo agrees to $50M settlement for breaches

Tampa prosecutor: Yahoo agrees to $50M settlement for breaches

Yahoo! Inc. has agreed to a $50 million settlement that could benefit the millions of Americans and thousands of Israelis affected by three data breaches that began in 2013. In a filing late Monday, lead prosecutor John Yanchunis of Tampa asked a jud...
Updated: 1 hour ago
There were two fatal wrong-way crashes last weekend. Should we be worried?

There were two fatal wrong-way crashes last weekend. Should we be worried?

A Pinellas Park man made a U-turn on the Howard Frankland Bridge on Friday, driving in the wrong direction for several miles before crashing into a van. The wrong-way driver died at the scene.Two days later, a Seffner man with his headlights off drov...
Updated: 1 hour ago
$22,000 worth of hope as 90 friends pool money for Mega Millions tickets

$22,000 worth of hope as 90 friends pool money for Mega Millions tickets

TAMPA — Ryan McGuinness is pooling money from nearly 90 friends to boost their chances of winning Tuesday night’s record $1.6 million Mega Millions jackpot drawing. His afternoon buy of 11,000 $2 tickets at the Metro Market in Ybor City was their fou...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Diocese of St. Petersburg celebrates 50th year with free Family Faith Fest

Diocese of St. Petersburg celebrates 50th year with free Family Faith Fest

Christian music stars Jeremy Camp and Colton Dixon will perform Saturdday at Al Lopez Park.
Updated: 2 hours ago
Grammy Award winning Christian vocalist performs in Sun City Center

Grammy Award winning Christian vocalist performs in Sun City Center

Steve Green, Christian vocalist, will perform at Trinity Baptist Church. He's celebrating 31 years in the Christian music industry.
Updated: 2 hours ago
Ruskin motorcyclist crashes, fatally struck while lying on road

Ruskin motorcyclist crashes, fatally struck while lying on road

After colliding with a boat trailer on US-41, a motorcyclist was ejected from his vehicle and lying on the road. He was then struck by another vehicle traveling northbound and died from his injuries.
Updated: 2 hours ago