Former members of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have provided enough evidence of misdeeds by their old lawyers for parts of a lawsuit to proceed, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.
The former sect members must still prove their case in a Salt Lake City courtroom, the appeals court said. The Denver-based appeals court only considered the narrow issue of whether federal Judge Ted Stewart correctly dismissed a lawsuit filed against FLDS President Warren Jeffs and the law firm which used to represent his church, Snow Christensen & Martineau.
Stewart ruled some of the the plaintiffs waited too long to bring their suit and that others hadn’t proved enough legal malpractice to proceed to trial. The appeals court upheld Stewart’s dismissal of some of those plaintiffs or certain claims they filed, but overturned the dismissal of others.
Brent Hatch, an attorney representing Snow Christensen & Martineau, said he was pleased with the decision. Even though the appeals court resurrected the lawsuit, he noted, the court upheld the dismissal of more than half the claims. Also, he said, the appeal judges didn’t advance any of the revived claims to trial; they sent them to Stewart so he can hear further evidence.
“We’re happy because we’re confident that the remaining claims will be denied [as being without] merit," Hatch said. "So we view it as a victory.”
Attorneys for the plaintiffs did not return messages seeking comment Thursday afternoon.
Former FLDS members, 31 of whom were listed as plaintiffs in Thursday’s decision, regard the suit as a way to obtain justice from the lawyers. The ex-Jeffs followers contend the lawyers helped Jeffs find legal mechanisms to hide child rape as well as benefit from child labor, kick people out of their homes and separate them from their families.
The plaintiffs filed suit in 2016, alleging the law firm portrayed themselves as being attorneys for each sect member, but really only gave legal aid to Jeffs. One former FLDS attorney, Rod Parker, is singled out as a defendant. A key issue in the lawsuit is how Parker in 1998 helped Jeffs change the terms of a trust that owned most of the property in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. The change gave Jeffs control over who could live in trust-owned homes or could use the trust’s commercial and agricultural properties.
The lawsuit also recounts how, after Texas authorities raided the FLDS-owned Yearning For Zion ranch, FLDS members were told to contribute all their income and max out their credit cards to help the church pay Snow Christensen & Martineau.
Jeffs is serving a sentence of life plus 20 years in prison in Texas for crimes related to sexually assaulting two girls he married as plural wives.