The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday gave the Church of Scientology until Jan. 8 to challenge a California requirement that the group post a bond of up to $60 million while it appeals a $30-million award to a former member who charged that the church had ruined him mentally and financially.
"The church is very pleased that the . . . Supreme Court has recognized the gravity of this situation and has granted the church relief," said the Rev. Ken Hoden, president of the church in Los Angeles.
The high court's action extended for 90 days a stay granted by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on Oct. 8 after the church made an emergency request to suspend the California bond requirement.
Under state law, and depending on the procedures used, posting of a bond of 1 1/2 to two times the amount of the award can be required during the appeal process. (The church already has filed notice that it will appeal the jury award on grounds that the verdict violates First Amendment guarantees of freedom of religion.)
Attorneys for the plaintiff, Larry Wollersheim, will have 30 days after the church's writ is filed with the high court to submit answering arguments, after which the justices will decide whether to rule on the matter or return the case to the California courts.
In their request, attorneys for the church said posting of a bond in such an amount would bankrupt the organization. They said the church's net worth is about $13 million, including $8 million pledged against a claim for back taxes by the Internal Revenue Service in another pending legal matter.
New York attorney Leonard Boudin, one of the lawyers representing the church before the high court, said the principal question before the justices will be "whether the state can impose (such) an inordinately large bond" while the defendant appeals the case.
Wollersheim was awarded $5 million in compensatory and $25 million in punitive damages July 22 after a five-month trial. Wollersheim filed the lawsuit in 1980 after 11 years as a Scientologist. He claimed that he spent more than $100,000 for Scientology training that the church said would give him supernatural powers and enhance his intelligence and success in business.
The jury's verdict and Superior Court Judge Ronald Swearinger's later upholding of the panel's $30-million award kicked off more than a month of protest demonstrations and rallies by Scientologists in downtown Los Angeles.