Nearly 22 years ago, Lawrence Wollersheim, a disaffected member of the Church of Scientology, filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles accusing the church of mental abuse that pushed him to the brink of suicide. Teams of lawyers and various rulings came and went, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Judgments against the church hit $30 million, then dropped to $2.5 million.
But the Church of Scientology never paid -- until yesterday, when officials wrote a check for more than $8.6 million to end the case, one of the longest-running in California history.
"They stalled it and stalled it and stalled it," said Wollersheim, 53, now of Nevada. He called his victory a landmark for former members of the church, which is known for heated and protracted legal battles.
"I'm smiling," he said. "It's like being the first plaintiff to get a victory against the cigarette companies."
Wollersheim, who ran a small photo business, joined Scientology in 1969 and later became a recruiter. He signed a "billion-year" contract to serve the church but says that he ended up being punished in a "thought reform gulag," consigned to the hold of a ship docked off California for 18 hours a day. The ship was part of a mini-navy assembled by L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction writer who created the church in the early 1950s.
Because of Scientology practices, "Wollersheim's mental condition worsened to the point he actively contemplated suicide," a California appeals court said in 1989. "The church's conduct was manifestly outrageous."
Wollersheim,who suffered from a bipolar disorder, was forbidden to seek medical help under Scientology policies, he says. He quit the church after spending $150,000 on Hubbard's "mental health" regimes, and by 1980 had filed suit. In 1986, a jury awarded him $5 million in compensatory damages and $25 million to punish the church for what jurors called intentional and negligent "infliction of emotional distress."
The total was reduced on appeal to $2.5 million. But Scientology officials vowed they would pay "not one thin dime for Wollersheim," and members were rallied to chant that slogan at hearings.
Church attorney William Drescher yesterday blamed Wollersheim in part for the long delay in resolving the case. "From what I understand, Wollersheim didn't make any effort to collect [the judgment] for 11 years," he said.
But attorneys for Wollersheim said the church evaded payment by setting up corporate shells and employing endless hardball legal tactics, based on Hubbard policies that aim to ruin ex-members who sue the church. "Twenty-two years is extraordinary," attorney Ford Greene said.
As the battle went on, the $2.5 million judgment -- upheld in 1994 by the U.S. Supreme Court -- collected interest at the statutory 10 percent rate. Yesterday, as a Los Angeles Superior Court judge was set to begin yet another hearing, the Church of Scientology of California suddenly threw in the towel.
At 8:17 a.m., the church deposited $8,674,843 with the court clerk, ending the case.
Wollersheim said "significant amounts" of the judgment are owed to people who loaned him money on faith that he would eventually prevail. He also must pay off eight law firms that worked on contingency over the years.
But on FACTNet.org -- his Web site, which stands for Fight Against Coercive Tactics Network -- he issued a buoyant statement, gloating, "The cult that vowed it would never pay me one thin dime has now paid over 86 million thin dimes."