TAMPA — In an attempt to resolve their $1.3 million lawsuit against the Church of Scientology, a federal judge last year required Luis and Rocio Garcia to submit to "binding religious arbitration" set up by church officials.
That is easier said than done, the couple says in a new motion that accuses Scientology of obstructing a process already tilted heavily in the church's favor.
It puts the Garcias' claim entirely in the hands of practicing Scientologists, who frown heavily on defectors. It also requires them to find a practicing Scientologist to represent them on the arbitration panel, yet bars them from ever talking to such a person.
The couple argues that the church, by throwing up barriers, has effectively waived the right to have the matter arbitrated, and asks U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore to restart their lawsuit, which alleges fraud on Scientology's part.
"My client has been rather frustrated," said the couple's lawyer, Ted Babbitt of West Palm Beach, referring to Luis Garcia. "He's tried his hardest to comply with the court's order and the church seems to want to put roadblocks in the way of even attempting to arbitrate this matter."
The Garcias, who live in California, are seeking the return of $1.3 million in donations they made to various Scientology causes during their 28 years in the church — most notably a sum of more than $420,000 that went to the church's massive "Flag Building" in downtown Clearwater.
The couple alleges that church workers deceived and pressured them into making the donations. But their case has been made more difficult by the fact that they signed some 40 documents agreeing to go through Scientology's arbitration process if they ever had a dispute over the money.
Under that process, the church selects one arbitrator, the Garcias select another one, and those two arbitrators select a third person. All three arbitrators must be Scientologists in good standing.
But the Garcias say that finding a Scientologist in good standing to represent them on the panel has been every bit the challenge they predicted it would be when they urged Whittemore last year not to make them go through church arbitration.
The couple, who left Scientology in 2010, are up against a culture and a controversial doctrine that strongly discourages dissent and brands doubters and trouble-makers as "suppressive persons" or "SPs." It also demands that practicing Scientologists "disconnect" from SPs by severing all contact — even if they are family members.
Judges have consistently found these practices, along with the church's arbitration process, to be religious in nature and thus constitutionally protected. Early last year, when the Garcias' lawyers explained how Scientology's teachings tilted arbitration cases in the church's favor, Whittemore said the First Amendment prevented him from delving into that topic lest he start interpreting religious matters.
On March 13, 2015, he ordered them to undergo the church arbitration.
The Garcias' struggles with the process are outlined in more than 120 pages of emails and other exhibits filed with the motion late Wednesday.
At one point, after the couple emailed 20 practicing Scientologists directly, 17 did not respond, one wrote back with a derogatory message and two reported the contact to church International Justice Chief Mike Ellis.
Ellis told the Garcias it was improper for them to contact practicing members, and the only way they could approach them would be through him. He offered to send the Garcias a list of Scientologists he deemed qualified.
Not wanting an arbitrator preselected by the church, the couple asked for a list of all Scientologists in good standing. The church refused to provide one, saying it would violate members' privacy, was against policy and was an unreasonable request.
Left to guess who was in good standing and who was not, the Garcias tried submitting 45 names of people they knew, but almost all were vetoed by Ellis as not being in good standing. A handful were unavailable to serve.
In early October, after the Garcias sent Ellis a list of 35 names of possible arbitrators, he emailed them back, saying it was the Garcias who were abusing the process.
"I can already see that, once again, you are being disingenuous by proposing individuals who you know are not in good standing with the Mother Church," Ellis wrote. He singled out one member who was active on an anti-Scientology website and another who participated in a "squirrel group," a church term for those who engage in Scientology practices without church approval.
The Garcias wrote back, saying it was difficult from outside the church to tell who was in good standing. "We really have no way of knowing who posted what and where (on the Internet)," they told Ellis. "Unlike you, we do not monitor the dozens if not hundreds of anti-Scientology websites and blogs that exist."
The 35 names came from a church-owned website that tells visitors they can "Meet over 16,000 Scientologists on-line."
"If they're not in good standing, how do we know who is?" asked Babbitt, the Garcias' lawyer.
Clearwater lawyer F. Wallace Pope Jr., one of the church's lead attorneys on the case, said he was reviewing the Garcias' motion and planned to file a response. He declined to comment further.
The Garcias were among dozens of Scientology parishioners featured in a 2011 Tampa Bay Times investigative series, "The Money Machine," which reported that church workers drove up contributions using tactics described as intrusive, heavy handed, coercive and relentless.
The couple made their fortune as owners of a commercial printing operation in Irvine that had annual revenues topping $14 million. They joined the church in 1982 after Luis acted on the advice of a stranger and read Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. They said they left after growing weary of the money demands and convinced that Scientology's spiritual practices had been "corrupted.''
The church has called the lawsuit frivolous and many of its claims "blatantly false."
Contact Thomas C. Tobin at [email protected] Follow @ThomasCTobin.