A California Superior Court judge granted a summary judgment on Wednesday in favor of La Sierra University in a lawsuit filed by three former La Sierra administrators and faculty members.
The judge who issued the summary judgment in the case ruled, in effect, that La Sierra University is an official entity of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and as such, church leaders may (have a responsibility to) care for the church’s core values, which is what the Pacific Union Conference was doing in asking the three employees to sign letters of resignation. He ruled, in essence, that the case lacks sufficient merit to go to trial.
Judge Edward Webster stated that the court should not become entangled in religious governance matters unless absolutely necessary, and this case did not present a clear necessity for the court’s entanglement.
The defendants had filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the claims made against them were legally and factually meritless. After hearing the motion and arguments by both sides, the judge granted the motion.
“We are thankful that the judge has accepted the arguments made by the defendants and that the claim has been found to be without merit. We are also thankful for the work of our legal team to achieve this favorable result,” said Karnik Doukmetzian, general counsel for the North American Division, quoted by NAD Newspoints.
La Sierra’s official statement following the decision said:
“La Sierra University has received and respects the court’s decision that all causes of action brought in the lawsuit against the University and entities within the Seventh-day Church were without legal merit. We are grateful for resolution of the legal issues. This has been a difficult three-year period for the university and the plaintiffs. Now is a time when the university can reflect on how it can build a stronger community, and heal the wounds that have resulted from these issues.”
Richard D. McCune, legal counsel for the plaintiffs, said: “We believe the court significantly erred in reaching its decision. . . the court’s decision is so contrary to established law, it [will] likely be overturned on appeal.”
McCune did say, however, that the formal decision would have to be reviewed before deciding to take the complaint further.
The hearing was held on Wednesday, March 5, at a Riverside County California Superior Court. The Pacific Union Conference, the North American Division, and three individuals (Ricardo Graham, president of the PUC; Daniel Jackson, president of the NAD; and Larry Blackmer, NAD vice president for Education) were also defendants in the suit, along with La Sierra University.
The hearing lasted several hours and dealt less with the summary judgment itself and more with the transcript of the audio recording from the plaintiffs’ private conversation. The judge made many references to the negative things plaintiffs said, particularly statements and actions by Lenny Darnell, who was a board member, but not an employee of LSU.
The judge stated explicitly that he expected the court’s decision to be appealed, musing that he was interested to see how an appeals court would rule. He further opined that this case had already cost a quarter of a million dollars, in his estimation, and noted that an appeal would not cost much more because the arguments had already been made at length.
With additional reporting from Riverside by Spectrum staff.