A U.S. magistrate judge has ruled that Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige was “actively concealing his whereabouts or evading service” in a federal trafficking lawsuit and declared him officially served in the case.
Judge Julie S. Sneed noted that opposing attorneys had gone to significant lengths to serve Miscavige with the lawsuit filed in Tampa federal court last April. Valeska Paris and husband and wife Gawain and Laura Baxter allege they were trafficked into Scientology as children and forced to work for little or no pay as adults.
Process servers tried to deliver court documents to Miscavige 27 times between May and August at 10 church properties in Clearwater and Los Angeles and were turned away by security. During a meeting on Jan. 25, attorneys for the Baxters and Paris asked Miscavige’s attorneys if they would accept service for their client. They declined.
Parcels with the court papers sent by certified mail to Scientology properties were returned to sender with unsigned return receipts, refused at the location or lost in the mail.
“For years, David Miscavige has succeeded in evading accountability,” according to a joint statement from attorneys John Dominguez and Zahra Dean, who represent Paris and the Baxters. “(The) ruling brings our clients — who alleged to have endured unimaginable abuses in Scientology as children and into adulthood — one step closer to getting their day in court and obtaining justice against all responsible parties.”
Scientology spokesperson Ben Shaw called the magistrate judge’s findings “erroneous” and said “Mr. Miscavige never evaded service.”
“The case is nothing but blatant harassment and was brought and is being litigated for the purpose of harassment — hoping that harassment will extort a pay day,” Shaw said.
Sneed’s order, issued Tuesday, officially deems Miscavige served in the lawsuit and is a win for the former church workers, who already successfully served five church entities also named in the case. But a glaring question remains over the complaint’s fate.
In July, the church entities filed motions to push the lawsuit into arbitration, stating all three plaintiffs signed agreements during their time in Scientology to settle any future dispute internally, not in the U.S. justice system.
At a hearing in November, attorneys for Paris and the Baxters argued they signed the arbitration agreements under duress and fear of punishment, making the clauses unenforceable.
On Monday, District Judge Thomas P. Barber stated that further arguments are needed on whether the court can decide the issue of duress at all or whether it must be determined through arbitration.
He ordered both sides to submit memos no longer than 10 pages by Feb. 27 on whether the duress argument may be determined by a court in the first place. Then each side can submit a rebuttal no longer than five pages by March 3.
In the meantime, Sneed’s order declaring Miscavige served gave him 21 days to file a response to the trafficking complaint.
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Although Florida law requires defendants to be personally served in litigation, Sneed explained that an exception allows for substitute service through the Florida secretary of state for “nonresidents and individuals concealing their whereabouts.” The plaintiffs completed this by sending the complaint and paying a filing fee to the Secretary of State and sending notice of that to Miscavige, according to the order. The attorneys failed to secure a return receipt, but Sneed excused that requirement due to Miscavige’s refusal of service.
In a previous motion, Miscavige argued he should not be served in the Tampa case because he is a resident of California and that the plaintiffs had not proven he is engaged in business in Florida as an individual or that their claims arise from his business in Florida.
Sneed rejected that argument, hinting at the complex structure of the Scientology organization.
Although Miscavige is not an officer, director or shareholder of most of the church entities, Sneed said the plaintiffs adequately allege the entities have continuous business in Florida and that they are “controlled by Miscavige individually and serve as his agents.”
Many of the plaintiffs’ allegations stem from the time they served on the Freewinds, a Scientology ship in the Caribbean that hosts events and delivers high-level church services to parishioners. However, they also cite the time they lived in Clearwater and allegedly were forced to perform unpaid work as children at church facilities.
Sneed ruled the plaintiffs adequately alleged that Miscavige and the church entities were sustained by and profited from the labor the former church workers performed inside and outside the state.
“Miscavige is alleged to direct and control these operations ‘at a considerable level of detail,’” Sneed wrote.