A group of former members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is suing Warren Jeffs and a Salt Lake City-based law firm, alleging that lawyers helped Jeffs establish an appearance of legality so he could enforce the unlawful marriages of underage girls and child labor.
Jeffs, the imprisoned leader of the FLDS Church, purportedly retained the law firm Snow, Christensen and Martineau as the religious sect's legal counsel when he assumed control of the church from his father, Rulon Jeffs, in 1998.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, suggests that the younger Jeffs worked with the law firm until his 2011 conviction for sexually assaulting two girls, ages 12 and 15, whom he married as polygamous wives, to institutionalize through protected religious status "forced labor, forced sexual servitude, extortionate taking of property and disintegration of family units."
The law firm referred comment to outside counsel, attorney Brent Hatch, who filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit Thursday. The motion calls the plaintiffs' claims "baseless, scandalous and legally meritless." Hatch said the law firm was hired to represent the FLDS Church and that suing the lawyers is inappropriate. The motion to dismiss states that Snow, Christensen and Martineau did not represent the plaintiffs, though they were FLDS adherents, because it worked for Jeffs and the church and "did not owe a duty" to them.
Even then, the motion states that the law firm, in representing a client, does not necessarily endorse "the client's political, economic, social or moral views or activities, nor does it establish legal liability of the lawyer for the client's actions." The law firm says it "unequivocally and emphatically condemns" any unlawful actions Jeffs may have taken, but is not liable for those.
"The plaintiffs' claims here are really grievances against Warren Jeffs and the church," Hatch said.
The motion to dismiss also states that the court cannot adjudicate religious beliefs and that the statute of limitations for their claims has passed.
Hatch said he had not studied all the allegations in the 121-page complaint. He declined to address specific allegations, including whether FLDS work crews renovated the home of Rod Parker, an attorney with Snow, Christensen and Martineau since 1982 and who has represented the FLDS Church in numerous cases and at times served as a spokesman for the church.
Parker is named along with Jeffs, and the law firm as defendants in the lawsuit. The 17 plaintiffs are former followers of Jeffs and beneficiaries of the land trust he once controlled, called the United Effort Plan. The plaintiffs include one of Jeffs' plural wives, one of his half brothers and at least one niece and one nephew.
The defendants are accused of contriving a "complex and detailed scheme to manipulate the law" in Jeffs' favor, the lawsuit states.
The group supposedly helped Jeffs gain control of the church economically and politically, giving him legal power to act unilaterally with assets, funds and property under the United Effort Plan that holds most of the property in Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, on which many members of the religion have lived and worked.
When he took over the trust, Jeffs apparently also asked for control of local law enforcement so he could prevent certain crimes from being reported publicly.
The motion to dismiss from Snow, Christensen and Martineau states that the law firm "never operated or managed" the trust.
Those bringing the lawsuit say Jeffs was able to act out his "pedophilic and dictatorial impulses" and frighten members, including potentially thousands of families, into absolute obedience for fear of torture or kidnapping that appeared legal, the lawsuit alleges.
Jeffs purportedly afforded the "millions of dollars" in legal fees for the services provided by Snow, Christensen and Martineau — while also profiting himself — by forcing children to work in the community.
People who did not act in accordance with Jeffs' demands were threatened with expulsion from the community, removed from their homes, denied medical care and food, put in solitary confinement, and expected to work longer shifts, according to the lawsuit.
The law firm and Parker are to blame for Jeffs' actions because they conspired with the leader and knew he was committing illegal acts; they "utterly failed to discharge their duties as attorneys," though their client, Jeffs, was requesting unlawful services, the lawsuit claims. The plaintiffs and others were allegedly victimized by Jeffs' "systemic abuse" as a result.
Jeffs also banned internet and television access in the FLDS community, purportedly so adherents would not know about "the fraud being perpetrated on them," the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit alleges negligent misrepresentation, fraud, civil conspiracy, forced sex trafficking (particularly for Jeffs' religious ceremonies that served as a facade for underage sexual abuse and rape), racketeering, breach of fiduciary duty, legal malpractice and aiding the commission of felonies.
They say Jeffs acted "under the guise of divine right," and they seek to be "justly and adequately" compensated for the injuries, damages and losses incurred by his actions and outlined in the lawsuit filed Wednesday. The group seeks unspecified financial compensation for lost property and earnings, as well as emotional distress and suffering.
The plaintiffs, represented by Grimmer and Associates, based in Lehi, have requested a trial by jury. Most of the individual pleas come from women who married as young teenagers and fled the religion later in life.
Alicia Rohbock, one of the plaintiffs, was wed at different times to Jeffs' father and two of Jeffs' brothers, the lawsuit says. Ruby Jessop allegedly was forced at 14 years old to marry her cousin and repeatedly and "viciously" raped by a step-brother; she was forcibly sequestered after attempting to escape the community.
Briell Libertae Decker, who changed her name out of fear of persecution after leaving the FLDS Church, was one of Jeffs' 80 "spiritual wives," according to the lawsuit; she left in 2012. Sarah Allred said Jeffs showed her daughter, 7 years old at the time, special attention via letters while he was in jail. The church turned her children against her, she alleges in the lawsuit.
Some of the plaintiffs are men who helped pay the legal fees required by Snow, Christensen and Martineau.
Wallace Jeffs, a half-brother of Warren Jeffs and son of Rulon Jeffs, contributed $25,000 to the firm, the lawsuit states, before he was expelled from the church for unknown reasons in 2004. Vergel Barlow, who legally married one of the female plaintiffs and spiritually married another, also paid $1,000 per month.
Warren Jeffs, now 59, was convicted in 2011 by a Texas jury of sex assault charges related to his taking underage girls as brides. He is serving a sentence of life plus 20 years.
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