TAMPA — For months, Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige has played “a cat and mouse game” by evading formal notices in a human trafficking lawsuit, according to Manuel Dominguez, an attorney representing three former church workers.
In a Tampa federal courtroom on Friday, Dominguez said the three attorneys in attendance representing Miscavige could “end this now” by disclosing where their client lives.
“This is just a game, and I don’t think it should be,” said Dominguez, a partner at Cohen Milstein in Palm Beach Gardens.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Julie S. Sneed tried too, asking Miscavige attorney Joseph Terry for an address, with no success.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys asked Sneed to declare Miscavige served, considering their 27 attempts between May and August to deliver court papers to the Scientology leader at 10 church locations in Clearwater and Los Angeles. After a 90-minute hearing on Friday, Sneed said she will take both sides’ arguments under advisement before issuing a ruling.
The leader is a defendant in the case, along with several church entities.
The three former members of Scientology’s full-time workforce, the Sea Org, allege they were trafficked into the church as children and forced to work through adulthood for little or no pay. Valeska Paris and husband and wife Gawain and Laura Baxter, who filed the complaint in April, left the Sea Org in 2009 and 2012, respectively.
On Sept. 9, Sneed directed the clerk to issue a summons for Miscavige through the Florida Secretary of State, an alternate way to serve a defendant when direct service is unsuccessful.
But on Friday, Terry argued that attorneys for the former workers have not proven they have authority to serve Miscavige through the Secretary of State because they have not shown Miscavige is conducting business as an individual in Florida.
Dominguez noted that Miscavige “is very much engaged in business here in Florida” and cited his appearance at a New Year’s event at the church’s Fort Harrison Hotel. He also referred to a Tampa Bay Times story that detailed Miscavige’s Jan. 6 phone call with Clearwater interim City Manager Jennifer Poirrier to discuss the church’s real estate plans.
But Terry, co-chair of Williams & Connolly LLP’s First Amendment practice group in Washington, D.C., said Miscavige is a resident of California. He said any business Miscavige conducts in Florida is in the context of his “corporate capacity” with the church, not as an individual.
Many of the former workers’ allegations stem from their time serving on Scientology’s Freewinds ship, which operates in the Caribbean. Terry argued their claims do not arise from Miscavige’s business in Florida but “something that happened on a ship 15 years ago.”
Dominguez countered that Miscavige actively manages the Freewinds and his business in Florida is incidental to his clients’ claims. He said the other church entities named in the lawsuit are located in Clearwater and that “the church itself is his agent,” Dominguez said.
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“He and Scientology are the same entity, that’s the way this religion is run,” Dominguez said.
The five church entities named as co-defendants in the lawsuit already have been served and filed motions in July to push the lawsuit into internal church arbitration, where it would go before a panel of loyal church members. A judge has not yet ruled on the church’s request to divert the case out of the U.S. court system.
In the meantime, Dominguez argued his legal team has gone to extensive lengths to serve Miscavige, including hiring a private investigator, researching public records and asking the attorneys representing the five church entities for Miscavige’s mailing address.
When process servers tried to deliver paperwork to the 10 church locations in Clearwater and Los Angeles, security guards refused to accept documents and said they did not know where the ecclesiastical leader of the organization lived or worked, according to court filings.
In declarations filed in the case, former Sea Org members Aaron Smith-Levin and Mike Rinder stated Miscavige lives in a wing of Hacienda Gardens, a gated complex housing Sea Org members on North Saturn Avenue and Keene Road in Clearwater. But Terry said Smith-Levin and Rinder defected from Scientology more than a decade ago and didn’t have direct knowledge of the leader’s whereabouts.
He also pointed to a Dec. 31 YouTube video where Smith-Levin was discussing a police response to a Scientology property in Riverside County, California, and stated Miscavige lives and works there.
But in determining whether the court should declare Miscavige served through the secretary of state, Dominguez said whether he’s a resident of Florida is “not important.” The court, he said, should look at the extensive attempts his legal team has made to find out where he does business.
The law, he said, does not allow defendants “to create an obstacle course to navigate.”