Trials and Litigation

Law firm accused of enabling polygamist leader Warren Jeffs can be sued, 10th Circuit says

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Warren Jeffs

This photo of Warren Jeffs was distributed by the FBI before Jeffs was captured. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

A federal appeals court has reinstated a lawsuit accusing a Utah law firm of creating the legal framework that allowed polygamist leader Warren Jeffs to perpetuate child rape, forced labor and extortion.

The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 on March 14 that the suit may proceed against Snow Christensen & Martineau and one of its partners, Rodney Parker. Courthouse News Service and the Salt Lake Tribune have coverage.

The plaintiffs are former sect members. They had alleged Snow Christensen helped give Jeffs “absolute control” over members by revising a trust that gave him control of their possessions, homes and funds.

Those who did not live up to Jeffs’s principles—including the required “marriages” of underage girls—could be removed from the trust and stripped of their property.

Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison in 2011 after he was convicted of the sexual assault of two child brides. He led the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Circuit Judge Stephanie Seymour wrote the 10th Circuit majority decision that partly reversed a trial judge who had tossed the case largely on statute of limitations grounds.

The appeals court did not allow a civil RICO claim to proceed. But it allowed further proceedings on claims for breach of fiduciary duty, fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation, and violation of the Trafficking Victims Protections Reauthorization Act.

Seymour said some plaintiffs could not sue because they had filed suit too late. But others may be able to show that the deadline for filing suit was equitably tolled, Seymour said. The plaintiffs had alleged their sect indoctrination and the law firm’s concealment of conflicts led to a later realization of the wrongdoing.

An issue on remand is whether there was an implied attorney-client relationship with the plaintiffs. The suit contends Snow Christensen held itself out as representing sect members, who were told they personally had to pay the law firm’s legal fees.

“If individuals have been cut off from outside resources because of sincerely held religious beliefs and have been actively and repeatedly deceived as to an attorney’s responsibilities and allegiances towards them personally,” Seymour wrote, “it is plausible that they reasonably believed they were individually and collectively represented by that attorney.”

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