LDS Church sues Diné abuse resolution holdout
By Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola
Gallup Independent correspondent
February 9, 2019
GALLUP – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has filed a countersuit against a member of the Navajo Nation who declined to settle her Indian Student Placement Program sex abuse case against the church in 2018.
According to the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Utah Jan. 28, church attorneys claim the woman “ultimately reneged on the Settlement Agreement and refused to abide by its terms.”
The woman’s attorney, however, disputes this claim and says his client never agreed to or signed a settlement agreement with the church.
With this latest filing, there are now two dueling lawsuits involving the LDS Church and “BN,” the legal pseudonym used by the woman, who claims she was repeatedly sexually molested as a minor in the church sponsored placement program for Native American children. BN filed her lawsuit against the church in the Navajo courts in 2016.
And in an odd coincidence, attorneys for both parties share the same first and last names – David Jordan. According to BN’s attorney, David R. Jordan of Gallup, the two attorneys are not related.
David J. Jordan, of Salt Lake City, is the lead attorney for the LDS Church. With this lawsuit against BN, the church is requesting the federal court in Utah order an injunction prohibiting BN from proceeding with her claims in Navajo District Court because, as the church argues, the Navajo court does not have subject-matter jurisdiction and BN’s claims are moot.
Refused to settle
BN initially filed her lawsuit against the LDS Church in the Navajo Nation’s Window Rock District Court in May 2016. At that time, she was represented by attorneys Bill Keeler of Gallup and Craig Vernon of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The church immediately countersued in U.S. District Court, arguing the Navajo Nation courts did not have proper jurisdiction.
However, Judge Robert J. Shelby ruled the church had to “first exhaust their remedies” in the Navajo Nation courts before seeking redress in the federal courts.
The church suffered another legal blow in May 2018, when Navajo Nation District Judge Carol Perry denied the church’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.
In September 2018, Keeler and Vernon announced settlement agreements with the LDS Church on behalf of their Native American clients who had filed placement program abuse complaints. Keeler and Vernon also announced one former client – who turned out to be BN – had refused to settle her case, and she had retained a different attorney.
In the months since, legal developments between BN and the LDS Church have grown more tangled, involving a hearing before the Navajo Nation Supreme Court, filings with both state and federal courts in Utah and a number of disputed claims.
After BN declined to settle her case in September, the LDS Church filed a writ of prohibition with the Navajo Nation Supreme Court, contesting Perry’s jurisdiction ruling. The tribe’s Supreme Court ruled against the church Dec. 28.
According to the church’s lawsuit, at some unspecified time, the LDS Church and BN “negotiated a settlement of her claims.” However, the church claims BN then reneged on the agreement, and the church moved for a default judgment against BN in the Fourth Judicial District Court in Provo, Utah.
On Jan. 7, the court granted the LDS Church’s motion and ruled that once the church paid BN her financial settlement, the church was “released from all claims that are or could have been asserted” against the church in the Navajo courts.
Four days later, the LDS Church mailed the settlement check to BN’s attorney.
In response, the lawsuit states, “BN refused to dismiss her claims against Plaintiffs and returned the check.”
BN’s attorney, David R. Jordan, disputes BN ever negotiated a settlement of her claims with the LDS Church.
“She never wanted to settle,” he said in an email Tuesday. “She was not involved in the settlement negotiations. Her prior lawyer talked only with her husband.”
Jordan identified Craig Vernon as the prior attorney.
When contacted by email, BN’s former attorneys Vernon and Keeler declined to comment on BN’s current legal dispute. “Attorney client confidentiality prohibits us from answering any of the questions,” Vernon responded.
David R. Jordan said BN is proceeding with her case in the Navajo courts, and he will seek discovery on the issues raised in the complaint. As for the federal lawsuit filed by the
LDS Church in Utah, Jordan said he will move to dismiss the case.
“From our perspective, only the courts of the Navajo Nation can rule on whether a Navajo case has been settled,” Jordan said. “There is Navajo case law on the issue of whether a case is settled, and the LDS have clearly not wanted to raise the issue of the settlement in Navajo court. We believe that they are trying to avoid this because they know that a Navajo judge will rule that a conversation with her husband is inadequate to settle the case. I do not believe the federal court will step in, because I believe they will rule that the issue of the settlement has to be resolved in Navajo court.”
David J. Jordan, the LDS Church’s attorney, did not respond to emails seeking comment.