In the world of litigation, we see some pretty strange lawsuits. One such lawsuit concerns Monique Rathbun and the Church of Scientology. Monique and Marty Rathbun moved to the Texas Gulf Coast some ten years ago. Marty was the former second-in-charge for the Church of Scientology. The Church followed them to the small town in which they were living. Allegedly, they began to harass Marty. The Rathbuns then moved to Comal County, just north of San Antonio. The harassment continued. But, now they were also harassing Monique. Monique Rathbun was not a former administration official for the Church. The harassers are known as “squirrel busters” in the Church of Scientology.
The squirrel busters followed her to work, at home, made telephonic and electronic threats, contacted co-workers, family members and friends of Mrs. Rathbun. Monique filed suit, alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy by disclosure of private facts and by intrusion on seclusion, and tortious interference with contract rights. The Church then moved to dismiss based on the Texas version of a SLAPP statute. The Texas version is known as the “Texas Citizen Participation Act.” It is intended to protect lone citizens who speak about corporate or larger entities. See Tex. Civ.Pera.& Rem.C. Sec. 27.001-.11.
Depending one one’s point of view, the Church’s motion to dismiss is either gutsy or arrogant. The SLAPP statutes are intended to protect a lone citizen or two, not the Church of Scientology which has considerable assets. The Texas version, the TCPA, is the same. To succeed in its motion, the Church would have to show that Ms. Rathbun’s lawsuit was filed in response to the Church’s exercise of the right to free speech. Essentially, the Church was arguing that Mrs. Rathbun’s lawsuit infringed on its right to harass the wife of a former member of the church. It requires some arrogance to file such a motion. That may have been a tactical error. Because in filing that motion, the Church opened the door for Mrs. Rathbun to describe in detail the harassment which she endured:
- The squirrel busters would pop out of the bushes at night firing questions at her and then disappear when she calls the police
- Persons would follow her when walking her dog – they would be in a golf cart and start filming her as they drew closer – they would shout insults and rude questions about Scientology
- Scientology agents would follow the Rathbuns to the beach and to restaurants
- Persons would contact friends and family members of Mrs. Rathbun telling them she is in danger so long as she remained married to Marty Rathbun
- The agents sent a sex toy to Mrs. Rathbun at her work place – they sent flowers to a female co-worker while Mrs. Rathbun was away from work – the flowers had a romantic message
- When the Rathbuns moved to their wooded lot in Comal County, one of the Church defendants leased the house next door and aimed a surveillance camera at the Rathbun home
It is strange stuff. In filing their motion, they made it necessary for Mrs. Rathbun to describe in detail her allegations much earlier in the lawsuit than normal. Thus, she was able to cast the church in a bad light from the start. Or, as the court found, construing the allegations in favor of the non-movant, Ms. Rathbun’s allegations show the Squirrel Busters “plainly” were doing much more than simply standing in protest holding signs and attempting to speak to passers-by.
In its motion, said the court, the Church simply did not address the plaintiff’s allegations of stalking, intrusion at dinner with friends, filming, etc. That is always a tactical error, to ignore the more dramatic allegations.
And, of course, addressing the substance of the motion, there is no area of public concern – i.e. the “squirreling” of their religion – involved with the Church’s communications. Following someone, intruding on her dinner with friends, sending a sex toy to work and all the rest do not connect to protecting a religion.
The Church also argued that Monique Rathbun is a public figure because she entered into the controversy between the Church and Marty Rathbun. But, construing the allegations in favor of the non-movant, as the court must, any controversy between Marty Rathbun and the Church grew out of the Church’s harassment of Marty. If he was a public figure, that grew out of the Church’s harassment of him.
The TCPA allows an award of attorney’s fees if the TCPA motion is filed so as to delay a lawsuit. The trial court found the Church filed the motion to delay Monique Rathbun’s lawsuit. The trial court found the motion itself was not frivolous, but the way it was litigated was frivolous. It did award attorney’s fees to Ms. Rathbun. The Third Court of Appeals, however, found that such a ruling is not enough. There would need to be a finding that the motion was frivolous before it could award attorney’s fees. So, the appellate court overruled the trial court regarding the award of attorney’s fees.
This crazy lawsuit now goes back to the beginning. If this is what the Church filed early in the suit, one can only imagine what the Church might file next.
See decision here.