The United States Law Week

Utah Polygamist Group’s Lawyers Face Revived Malpractice Claims

March 14, 2019, 9:55 PM

Former members of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints who say they were victimized by its all-powerful leader, Warren Jeffs, may pursue legal malpractice and other claims against a Utah lawyer and law firm who worked with Jeffs.

A number of the plaintiffs sufficiently allege they had an attorney-client relationship with Rodney E. Parker and his firm, Snow Christensen & Martineau PC, at least to survive an early dismissal bid, a divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit said March 14.

Jeffs allegedly engaged in, and furthered, the sexual assault of minors as part of the church’s polygamist marriage practices and subjected members to torture, extortion, and unlawful imprisonment.

In claims against the church’s and Jeffs’ lawyers, the former members allege Jeffs and other FLDS leaders repeatedly said the law firm was representing their interests and often solicited money to pay their legal fees, when in fact the attorneys were working against them.

The former members allege Parker and his firm set up the legal structure that allowed Jeffs to dominate the community. Parker also allegedly attempted to convince the Utah Attorney General it was useless to negotiate with the FLDS to stop its underage-marriage practices. The group also illegally practiced polygamy, according to the court.

Jeffs is currently serving a sentence of life in prison plus 20 years on fraud and other criminal charges, including those related to sexual assault.

The court reversed the district court on several issues, including dismissals based on timeliness grounds, and reinstated a number of the plaintiffs’ claims.

It emphasized the unusual and extreme circumstances alleged in the suit, which included the church’s former members being isolated and cut off from communication with the outside world, which made them unable to discover Parker’s alleged misconduct.

Some 15 plaintiffs may continue with claims for legal malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty, though more aspects of those claims remain to be scrutinized in the lower court, the appeals court said.

Twelve former church members may proceed with fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation claims, and nine may proceed on claims the attorney and firm violated the Trafficking Victims Protections Reauthorization Act by gaining financially from a “venture” with Jeffs, also subject to further assessment by the lower court.

Godfrey Johnson PC represented the plaintiffs.

Hatch, James & Dodge PC represented Parker and his firm.

The case is Bistline v. Parker, 2019 BL 86369, 10th Cir., No. 17-4020, 3/14/19.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martina Barash in Washington at mbarash@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jo-el J. Meyer at jmeyer@bloomberglaw.com; Steven Patrick at spatrick@bloomberglaw.com

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