Lawyers for three Danny Masterson rape accusers and the Church of Scientology spent more than an hour sparring before a trio of appellate court judges Tuesday amid their ongoing battle over whether the women’s stalking lawsuit against the church must be diverted to an internal Scientology tribunal.
The long-awaited hearing stemmed from a lower court ruling last year that found the women, all former Scientologists, signed binding arbitration agreements more than a decade ago in which they forfeited their rights to ever sue the religious organization and agreed to take any civil claims to the church’s own internal justice system.
The women’s lawyer, Marci Hamilton, told the three-judge panel for California’s Second Appellate District that the church’s arbitration agreement, which every member must sign before taking any Scientology coursework, should not be allowed to “trap one-time believers” in a “wholly one-sided” and “jerry-rigged” system, especially when it comes to “physical conduct” occurring after someone leaves the organization. She said her clients’ underlying 2019 lawsuit against Masterson and the church, which was derailed and sent to arbitration by the trial court last December, should be bumped back to the public, state-run court system instead.
In their complaint, the women claim Masterson and church officials conspired to cover up the alleged rapes and carry out a “systematic stalking” campaign. The three accusers — the same alleged victims at the center of a felony rape case against Masterson — say they were subjected to home surveillance, threats, wiretapping, hacking, and even financial fraud because they reported Masterson to police.
On Tuesday, the appellate panel questioned Hamilton’s assertion that the church’s arbitration process — in which three Scientologists deemed to be in “good standing with the mother church” act as judge and jury — is akin to a religious “ritual” that would violate her clients’ First Amendment rights to freedom of religion.
“Here’s the difficulty I think we’re having: The arbitration has not happened. We don’t really know what it would look like. You say that this is going to be a religious ceremony or religious ritual, and the other side says, ‘No, it’s not.’ And for all we know, at least up until this point, this arbitration could go off to a T like any other arbitration before any other arbitration provider,” Associate Justice Lamar Baker said. “Is this issue even ripe at this point? And what specific harms would your clients face if the arbitration were allowed to go forward?” He then asked if the best approach might be to initiate arbitration, collect “specific facts,” and then return on appeal.
Hamilton replied that to even begin Scientology’s arbitration process would be “traumatizing for my clients.” Furthermore, she argued, such a move “would violate their First Amendment, absolute right to believe and practice whatever religion they chose and to escape the religions they don’t want to be a part of.” Hamilton called her clients “the most important religious actors” in the ongoing case, not the Church of Scientology.
Associate Justice Carl Moor then drilled down on the role that the church’s so-called International Justice Chief might play in the arbitration process, noting that ex-Scientologist Luis Garcia submitted a statement to the court recapping his experience in arbitration in 2017. In his statement, Garcia said someone serving in the IJC role censored the vast majority of the 900 pages of evidence he and his wife planned to present at the tribunal, reducing it to “approximately 70 pages.” (In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Garcia called the process a “joke,” saying some of the redacted material included flyers produced by the church itself.)
“Does the International Justice Chief have some role in making determinations about what evidence the arbitrators ultimately see?” Justice Moor asked.
“There is a role that the IJC plays in guiding the arbitrators on the applicable laws. The rules of evidence are set out in Scientology procedures, and it’s for the arbitrators to follow those,” church lawyer William Forman responded.
“Let me ask it slightly differently,” Moor interrupted. He asked Forman to picture a “funnel” that accepts evidence at the top before distributing it to arbitrators. “Is there any way in which the IJC takes things out of the top of funnel so they never make their way to the arbitrator?” he asked.
“The IJC can inform the arbitrators about the function of Scientology law and things to be admitted or not. But challenges to the IJC’s decisions can be made to the arbitrators by the litigants,” Forman said.
“I believe you said the IJC is essentially the guide for the arbitrators. That seems a bit at odds with the notion that the IJC could make a determination that certain evidence is inadmissible, or certain arguments are not allowed to be made,” Presiding Justice Laurence Rubin said, asking if he was “misunderstanding.”
“I don’t think you’re misunderstanding the point. The point is that the arbitration has to play out, and we need to see at the end of the day whether these petitioners have any cause to complain about any evidence that’s excluded or any witnesses that were excluded,” Forman replied.
Justice Baker later asked Hamilton, the women’s lawyer, about the possibility that people might engage in “gamesmanship” to get around religious arbitration agreements — i.e., saying they’re leaving a religion simply to sidestep the process. She replied that while the concern is “perfectly appropriate” in commercial arbitration cases, “I think it is inappropriate in a First Amendment case. A person has the right to choose what their faith will be on a daily basis.”
The three justices did not immediately rule at the end of the hearing Tuesday. They now have 90 days to issue a written opinion.
Two of the three women fighting the arbitration have chosen to remain anonymous and are listed as Jane Does in court filings. The third woman, Chrissie Carnell Bixler, has spoken publicly about her allegations against Masterson and is joined in the lawsuit by her musician husband, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, lead singer of the Mars Volta.
In a statement to Rolling Stone ahead of the Tuesday hearing, Bixler-Zavala blasted the lower court ruling from Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Steven J. Kleifield that redirected the lawsuit to the church’s arbitration process.
“To say my wife and I are confused and outraged by Judge Kleifield’s ruling is an understatement,” Bixler-Zavala said. “Not only is it immoral to force victims to be in a room filled with their abusers, and supporters thereof, but it should most definitely be found unlawful, as a violation of our First Amendment right to religious freedom.”
A fifth plaintiff in the civil case, Marie Bobette Riales, claims she was drugged and raped by Masterson in 2003. She was never a member of the church and is not a party to the judge’s arbitration ruling.
Masterson’s lawyer, Andrew Brettler, attended the Tuesday hearing but declined to use his allotted five minutes of argument time. In prior paperwork in the case, he said the women “unnecessarily dragged” Masterson into their dispute with the church in a “shameless ploy for attention.” “Plaintiffs do not allege that Mr. Masterson personally committed — or instructed others to commit — any of the allegedly wrongful conduct outlined in the complaint,” Brettler wrote in April 2020.
Masterson, meanwhile, has pleaded not guilty in the criminal case and is out on bail. He faces up to 45 years to life in prison if convicted as charged.
In a key ruling Tuesday that coincided with the Masterson accusers’ oral arguments — and signaled a possible uphill battle for the group — the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal issued a long-awaited decision that denied Luis Garcia’s attempt to overturn the outcome of his Scientology arbitration.
“Although the Garcias assert that the International Justice Chief barred them from bringing witnesses to the arbitration and redacted or excluded nearly 900 pages of documentary evidence, they have not identified any witnesses they wished to call or submitted the 900 pages of evidence. Nor have they explained what those witnesses might have said or how the documentary evidence was relevant to their claims. So they have failed to establish that this evidence was pertinent and material to their claims or that its exclusion prejudiced their rights,” the opinion states.