Prosecuting an Ex-Members Undue Influence Suit
Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 7, Number 1, 1990, pages 15-25
Prosecuting an Ex-Cult Member's Undue Influence Suit
Lawrence Levy, J.D.
Sherman Oaks, California
The case of an ex-member of the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT) who sued the group for damages is reviewed in order to illuminate practical issues in cult-related litigation. It is important that the client be able to withstand the processes of extended and emotionally draining litigation. Plaintiffs should avoid making cult beliefs an issue, focusing instead on destructive behaviors, in this case "garden-variety" torts. Similarly, the term "brainwashing," which connotes extreme physical deprivation to the uninformed public, should be avoided. The legal concept of undue influence was much more useful in this case. It is vital that the client be thoroughly prepared. Attorneys should first educate themselves and then educate judge and jury about the harmful cultic practices of the group in question. Expert and lay witnesses are essential to describe these practices and explain how they are destructive. Former cult members can be helpful in a variety of other ways, including emotional support and research assistance. In this case, the jury awarded $1,563,000 to the plaintiff, Gregory Mull, more than $1,000,000 of which were punitive damages. The decision was upheld by the California Appellate Court. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to grant CUT a writ of certiorari, thus finally ending the case.
A penniless and damaged Gregory Mull asked me in l98l to defend a suit against him in which the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT) claimed he owed the controversial new age group $30,000 in notes he signed in its favor. But when I learned about the outrageous way in which CUT treated Mull during his ten years' membership, we cross complained for, among other things, fraud (duress, menace, and undue influence), extortion, intentional infliction of emotional distress, common-law involuntary servitude (bondage and/or peonage), unjust enrichment, and assault. We asked damages of $253 million.
Our suit got heard before CUT's because the church's action against Gregory needed the evidence of our cause of action, which was a defense against the complaint. All parties agreed that the jury might forget the CUT case, which would have been disposed of quickly during the course of our counter-suit, which looked as if it would take two months. This paper describes some of the practical issues involved in this case and offers advice to attorneys contemplating or involved in similar cases.
Evaluate the Client
The decision to take on a client who seeks damages from a cult must not be taken without first considering several key factors. The first is the condition of the would-be client: an in-depth evaluation of his or her mental and physical condition must be made. He or she must be able to survive a long and grueling process leading from early depositions through trial and even on to lengthy appeals before the strain is relieved. This process, which lasted over six years in the case at hand, may be too much for some former cult members, who are especially tender, frequently unstable, and difficult to work with following their cult experiences. They still may be using cult-learned modes of thought and speech, which are difficult for outsiders to understand. They are also especially vulnerable to the continuing psychological influence of the cult, even to the cult's psychological warfare, throughout the litigation process, and to harassment out of court, which is not uncommon. Gregory Mull, when he first approached me, and for some time after, no longer really spoke English. After a decade with CUT, he employed church jargon and church references which, to an outsider, are virtually indecipherable. In addition, his fear of CUT retribution, both real and metaphysical, was such that he rarely spoke above a whisper about the group.
Lawyers contemplating litigation with cults must also be aware that since such groups are typically businesses as well as religions, the leaders, or "owners," are willing and able to spend a great deal of money -- on depositions, motions, investigators, and experts -- to protect their share of the spiritual marketplace. Indeed, they often cross the boundaries of ethical legal practice. This sort of action, when combined with the indirect psychological influence the group still wields over the client, makes your job as an attorney anguished and difficult. You must determine with a fair degree of confidence, then, your client's dedication to the proposed litigation, his physical and psychological stamina, his ability to withstand the cult's retaliation for his apostasy and "turning" on them, and the capacity of both you and your client to sustain the expense of the effort. I was not fully sensitive to all of these problems when I agreed to represent Gregory Mull, but after listening to him explain how he had been grossly mistreated by CUT, and believing what he said, I felt that the tragedy which had befallen him was entitled to redress.
I was also outraged at how he had been rebuffed by lawyers whom he approached before me. Lawyers with a Christian background usually said that they could not "in good faith" oppose a "church." Jewish firms, on the other hand, did not want to appear to be attacking a church that might be Christian. Almost all of the firms who turned my client away thought that the First Amendment might protect CUT from a damage suit.
The Issue of Religion
Religion was an important, though largely unspoken, issue in the case. It must be carefully considered when litigating against a religious group. Neither my client nor I addressed CUT religious beliefs in the complaint or during subsequent proceedings. Gregory Mull would not do so out of fear of human and supernatural sanctions, and I understood that First Amendment protection of sincerely held religious beliefs must confine our discussion to the harm that CUT had actually inflicted on my client. The attorney must be prepared to argue in court the necessity of separating conduct from belief. Prepare for this argument long before the trial, since it is sure to surface during the trial. Case law supports my contention that conduct is everything that occurs before one forms a belief and everything that occurs after the formation of a belief, or in spite of it. For example, in U.S. v Reynolds (the case involving Mormons and multiple marriage) the court said that you may believe in the institution but, in this country, you cannot practice it.
Be prepared to submit affidavits to judges who brook no attempt to question anything to do with a church or church activity regardless of the type of church or the activity. Avoid judges who dominate trials and do not allow attorneys to try their cases. Study judicial profiles or ask other attorneys about their experiences with certain judges. It is well to remember that judges are only legally trained people who bring their own prejudices with them into court.
I never questioned the validity of CUT as a religion, and the appeal court, while noting that CUT was a religion, agreed that this issue had never been raised during the trial. CUT, on the other hand, made much of the fact that it was a religion and that this justified the facts of its relationship with Gregory. Indeed, their writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court claims that what they did is absolutely protected by the First Amendment. They said that the money Gregory gave to CUT was in response to a Biblical injunction, and thus could not be questioned by the court. This was, in fact, their main defense. I argued that money given by a member to CUT after a two and one-half hour ritual browbeating -- "decreeing" -- is not protected, and cannot be called a "donation." Gregory testified, quite rightly, that the decreeing, which threatens supernatural sanctions, frightened him into giving the money. But I never questioned the belief system, and I asked the judge to instruct the jury that we were inquiring only into actions, in this case extortion, breach of confidence, and more. If religious belief discussion was broached by CUT, I asked for a jury caution that beliefs were not an issue, only tortious conduct and its effects on Gregory. I discussed religion once or twice, but only as it related to conduct. I did not even mention other noted cult cases, so great was my effort to show as starkly as possible that we were alleging only the commission of garden-variety torts.
At the time of his ordeal, CUT was (and still is) controlled by Elizabeth Clare Prophet, a very articulate and highly charismatic leader, the great teacher, the nurturing mother, the source of all wisdom, and the ultimate connection between members and their creator. Followers believe the "ascended masters" -- great leaders of world religions of the past, both Eastern and Western -- speak through her, and only her. Among the teachings woven into CUT cosmology, which also shares many themes of the contemporary New Age Movement, is the need for initiates to sever relations with their families (especially when and if financial support from kin has ceased), obedience to strict codes of conduct which Prophet has devised, and general unquestioning acceptance of her dictates. In the end, she controls closely the financial arrangements of followers as well as of the church. It is from these controls that the mental, physical, and socio-economic damages of cults like CUT arise.
The attorney not yet initiated into the mysteries of cult organizations finds it difficult to understand the basis of a damage claim by someone whose involvement was apparently voluntary. He or she will often ask, "If members don't like what's going on, why don't they leave?" Here, it is well to remember what research into cults during our time has shown: people frequently, if not usually, are so subtly manipulated to become involved that they lose their ability to assess their situations critically. They can neither leave nor fight back. In order to convince the court that this is the situation, you must understand the indoctrination techniques employed by cults generally, and particularly by the cult with which you are in litigation. To get this knowledge, you must debrief your client thoroughly, read literature on cults generally and about the cult in question (such material is becoming more and more available), and interview other former members of the group, preferably those who knew your client.
Every organization indoctrinates, but most do so in order to educate. Cult indoctrination really consists of a kind of re-education which leads to control of some of the initiate's thought processes and, thus, his actions. CUT employed a very sophisticated indoctrination program during Gregory Mull's association with the group. It began when a CUT member attended a Bible study class that Gregory himself conducted at his own home. At the time Gregory was a successful architect, a building designer with a moderate practice that afforded him and his daughter a lovely home, travel, and a comfortable lifestyle. He had developed his professional expertise and had received national recognition for his work. He was also deeply religious.
In what amounts to a classic seduction, the newcomer introduced Gregory to a few CUT teachings and then escorted him personally to a CUT teaching center, where tried and true members -- in what is now recognized as a classic cult recruitment style -- flattered, pampered, and cajoled him until finally he agreed to attend a three-month session at CUT'S "university." At the end of the three months -- replete with an organized program of sleep deprivation, fasting, supposedly cleansing colonics (enemas), induction of hypnotic states through "decreeing" (a form of chanting), segregation from family and friends, isolation from his regular support groups, peer pressure, and a barrage of new information designed to foster reliance on Elizabeth Clare Prophet's wisdom -- Gregory Mull was captured. His subservience to Prophet's undue influence was complete. He relied on her for his direction, his truth, and his salvation. This new situation in which Greogry Mull found himself was important to us when we sued CUT because the result to him was physical, psychological, and socio-economic damage.
To show the effects of undue influence, I adduced testimony to demonstrate that Gregory, while controlled by CUT and Prophet, divorced a wife, lost a business, ruined his health by overwork, and virtually always did what was in her best interest and not his own. I illustrated that this sort of control was common in CUT: how Elizabeth Clare Prophet was the "parent" and the members were her "children"; how she made all their decisions on who could marry and when, what sexual practices were acceptable, who should divorce, and when; how her followers withheld all decisions until she had "cleared" everything. I also showed the effects of Gregory's indoctrination by illustrating the personality changes that paralleled the downward spiral of events in his life.
A Word to Avoid
In making such a case, however, I did not use the term "brainwashing." To uninformed judges and juries, the word connotes processes found in Chinese prison camps during the Korean War. The defense will point out that cult life is different, and if you insist on using the term you may well lose your argument about undue influence and coercive manipulation. Whenever CUT counsel brought up the term, implying that we were accusing CUT of brainwashing, I said that I never used the term and would never inquire into the inculcation of religious belief. Thus, we denied CUT'S attempt to make "brainwashing" an issue. Interestingly, CUT moved at one point to prevent use of the word "cult," which many consider to be a pejorative term, and prejudicial to the defense, but the judge ruled that it was simply descriptive and should be allowed.
Preparing the Client
The first and most important object of the trial attorney is to prepare the client for the possible long road ahead. Such preparation includes educating the client about the legal system, which means, among other things, insisting on the truth and absolutely no exaggeration. In order to show that your client underwent harmful changes of various kinds as a result of his cult involvement, draw a time-line noting major life events and lifestyle before, during, and after the cult involvement. The comparison between what your client was before and after the involvement will focus on the cult-related reasons for the differences and provide a rationale for the damages asked.
Development of the client's personal history -- the importance of which cannot be overstated -- should precede discovery because it will be needed there as well as in court. (Gregory was deposed eleven times and required to answer reams of interrogatories before the trial.) How your client answers during long hours of hostile depositions can come back to haunt you. As most lay juries are unfamiliar with cults, I spent hour upon hour asking questions of Gregory and other former cult members who testified, until they answered in easily understood, straightforward language without references to CUT-speak, so that our witnesses appeared honest and straightforward. As Gregory's story came out during his examination, the jury could see and assess his truthfulness. He never waivered. He never avoided the tough questions. He never excused what he had done in CUT and did not try to blame anyone else for his actions. Indeed, I had to persuade him to see that much of what had happened was the result in part of subtle victimization. He was believable and was believed, and two days of cross-examination by the church's attorney did not impeach his testimony.
Educating the Court
As witnesses must be specially prepared, the judge and the jury must be specially educated by counsel in cult-related cases. Most people, whether lay or professional, know little more about cults than that they exist, or that they are bizarre. You must communicate your own new-found knowledge to the court throughout the trial. You must widen the court's perspective so it understands the phenomenon that is causing the harms you allege, and then focus on the particular manifestations of the general principles that have led to harm to your client. You must not seek to hide unpleasant facts about your client -- in cult-related cases especially they will exist and come out.
While religion is not an issue in the complaint, you must question jurors about their attitudes toward religion and indoctrination, but do not accept simple yes and no answers. Determine, inoffensively, their church affiliations, frequency of attendance, and belief (or not) in God. You have to be fair so they won't think you are against religion as the opposition may wish the jury to believe. The CUT lawyer asked jurors if they believed bizarre religions had rights, thus setting up his defense based on religious rights.
Eliminate very young people from a jury because they tend to see things in black and white and almost always miss the shades of gray, which is where cult-related cases are decided. Young, atheistic, non-achievers should be very carefully examined and evaluated because they have a tendency to believe that "there is no free lunch," and that a cult victim should have anticipated the worst and should not now be entitled to redress for damages.
Education of the jurors must continue throughout the trial. Emphasize, by example, the destructive nature of cults, and the best example is your client's story. Cause and effect works well. What did the cult do? What was your client required to do? What was the damaging effect? In almost every cult-related case, the cult leader and his or her total control of the victim must be a focus.
After examining Gregory Mull, thus setting the context for the case, I called Elizabeth Clare Prophet to the stand as an adverse witness in order to show the contrast between him and her. When your client is likeable and his adversary is dominating, overbearing, egotistical, as cult leaders are wont to be, the jury can see the difference, and ought to as early in the trial as possible. Cult witnesses can hang themselves and prove the charges of undue influence by their own testimony. By contrast, an ex-CUT member and friend testified that before Gregory's move to CUT's main facility ("Camelot"), he was physically and mentally sound, well-dressed, active, and always on the go, socially as well as professionally. When Gregory was kicked out of Camelot, he had become a physical and emotional wreck, and had lost his livelihood. Having suffered in similar ways, other ex-members are often more than willing to help. Some, however, may not want to, fearing retribution, or simply wanting to put the experience fully behind them and avoiding renewed trauma.
The number of witnesses should be decided not only by availability but by the likely value of their testimony. Four or five strong, articulate witnesses are better than the l8 or 20 cults often produce to parrot the party line. CUT brought in witness after witness saying essentially the same things. Ex-members of CUT who testified on Gregory's behalf told me that the church rehearsed its witnesses, more often than not without the knowledge of their own legal counsel. The result, of course, was that their witnesses appeared to be actors playing roles. The haughty Elizabeth Clare Prophet hanged herself. In an irritable fit during a deposition, she had said that she ran CUT, oversaw its finances, and made all final decisions. At the trial, in response to one of her own attorney's questions seeking to distance her from alleged control over Gregory, she said that she knew nothing of finances, management, or details of the church's dealing with him. Imagine her shock when I introduced her deposition testimony to impeach her trial testimony. I believe that many cult leaders, like Elizabeth Clare Prophet, come to believe in the extraordinary powers they claim, and in their invulnerability. This can lead to damaging contradictions and revelations in litigation.
The use of expert witnesses in cult-related litigation is no longer an option; it is mandatory. Cults across America have spent huge sums on their own experts, and an attorney litigating with a cult can be sure that the opposition will have a battery of experts at hand. During the Mull case, I myself interviewed eleven experts before selecting two. I chose people who were personable, articulate, unflappable under pressure, and possessed of impeccable credentials (which greatly impress juries). Both of my experts spent many hours with Gregory before the trial, and during it. When not speaking in court about the effects of the cult experience on him, they concentrated on the nature of the social structure and culture of the cult. One expert had interviewed and counseled other ex-CUT members and thus spoke with special authority, among other things, about the personal dynamics and psychological consequences of cult membership. Another expert, a clergyman and experienced counselor to the cult-affected, stressed the long-term ill-effects of association with a cult. Both experts refused to be drawn into a debate about religious belief.
In addition to these experts, Gregory's medical doctor as well as a family counselor, who were qualified as experts, spoke primarily about his medical and psychological history. They testified, simply and compellingly, exactly how CUT's actions toward Gregory had harmed him mentally and physically. None of CUT's experts had had any personal contact with Gregory before the trial, so their testimony was limited to educated guesses about him, his experience, and what it had done to him. Experts used by cults do not usually have impressive credentials. Thus, CUT's attorney in the Mull case, knowing the outstanding qualifications of our experts, sought to stipulate to these qualifications in order to avoid having the jury hear about their vast knowledge and experience in regard to cults. I refused, and read into the record details of our experts' education, awards, experience, publications, and national repute in cult-related matters. The jurors then had a solid basis on which to decide whose experts to believe
Ex-cult members, who often network in order to support others who are exiting, offer a mine of knowledge and experience that can assist litigation. In the case at hand, ex-CUT members and former members of other cultic groups provided us with biographies of CUT witnesses, both lay and expert, which helped impugn testimony of the defense witnesses. Another ex-member, now an exit-counselor and educator, assisted by providing emotional support, transportation, and valet service for an ill Gregory. Most valuable of all, he provided insight into the cultic mindset for me. In yet another instance, the mother of a current CUT member was always on hand to provide both Gregory and me with emotional support and encouragement throughout the trial, and after. Still another ex-member provided scholarly articles which he had researched and which allowed me to do my job better in what was, at first, a very puzzling area of both law and human psychology, Such aid from ex-members is especially welcome since the clerical work and footwork necessary to do the kind of things they did would have been impossible on our budget. I wholeheartedly encourage you to solicit ex-member aid, support, and participation in your litigation.
These are but a few examples of the best of all resources -- the people who care. Everyone I contacted before and during the pendency of the litigation taught me a great deal and I was able to utilize most of what they taught me about cults and their destructive nature during the trial. To name all of them is impossible and as I fear overlooking any of them I won't attempt to name them all. But a few were exceptional, and to Kathleen, David, Steven, Margaret, Marilyn, Rachel, and Donald -- my very personal and profoundest THANK YOU.
The jury awarded Gregory Mull $l,563,000 in 1986 in a general verdict: $52l,000 in compensatory damages, which bore a rational relationship to the general damages, and $52l,000 in punitive damages from both CUT and Elizabeth Clare Prophet. In early 1989, the California Appellate Court upheld the decision and, with finality, vindicated Gregory's case, saying that CUT conduct toward him had been "shameful, despicable, and reprehensible." The appeal court, responding to a CUT claim that the jury's decision had been too emotionally based, said the decision indicated logic and a lack of emotion. Pending a decision on CUT's appeal to the U. S. Supreme Court, the church paid jury fees and placed the verdict amount in a locked account. I now expect the funds to be released following the high court's recent refusal to grant CUT a writ of certiorari, thus finally ending the case.
My Client's Death
Three months after the verdict, Gregory Mull died. Only the will to strike a blow on behalf of other cult victims, as he put it, held him together through the ordeal, for in addition to the stress of an action against an organization and leader to which he had once been in thrall, he had begun to suffer severe symptoms of multiple sclerosis. The disease first became clear when, prior to the trial, Gregory told local building inspectors that CUT structures were not earthquake safe. This led to tremendous harassment against him. Threatening calls to his home 24 hours a day and vandalism to his car, among other actions, stimulated a stroke-like incident (which was not, at the time, identified as an MS symptom). He was in acute physical distress day after day in court, but was determined to continue. A subsequent declaration by Elizabeth Clare Prophet that Gregory was "the beast of blasphemy " (a signal that he should be "destroyed") stimulated another stroke. His doctors then determined that Gregory was suffering from MS. His speech patterns had slowed, he walked with a cane, and often required physical assistance. Although I never accused CUT of causing the MS, a physician testifying to the physical effects of membership on Gregory said that the pressures he faced before the trial may have exacerbated a dormant MS. Throughout his life, Gregory Mull sought to do God's work. And in the end, he did. For by telling the truth about CUT, he has helped to enlighten millions who know nothing about the destructiveness of a cult experience. Sadly, it may have cost him his life.
Lawrence Levy, JD, is a sole practicing attorney from Sherman Oaks, California.