The North American Division announced that the appeal in the LSU-3 lawsuit has been dismissed, thus finally ending the litigation.
This case began with an inadvertent recording of a conversation among three La Sierra professors, Jeffrey Kaatz, James Beach, and Gary Bradley, and La Sierra board member Lenny Darnell, at the home of James Beach on April 20, 2011. During the conversation the men were crudely critical of church officials, including NAD president Dan Jackson and NAD education secretary Larry Blackmer. They were also dismissive of Adventist standards on diet and alcohol, and, as subsequent depositions confirmed, they were drinking whiskey.
The recording came to the attention of church officials, including Pacific Union president Ricardo Graham, who in his capacity of Chairman of LSU's Board of Trustees, demanded the resignations of the four, but because of tenure restrictions, Kaatz and Beach were ultimately only stripped of their dean-ships, not fired. Beach, Bradley and Kaatz brought suit against LSU, several church entities, and Graham, Blackmer, and Jackson individually, alleging wrongful termination and improper interference with the university.
As reported almost a year ago in March, 2014, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. Summary judgment can be granted only when (1) no material fact is disputed, and (2) the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The ruling was based upon different grounds for different defendants, including the rule that forbids secular courts to entangle themselves in sectarian religious disputes (for LSU), the managerial privilege (for Graham), and the common interest privilege (for Jackson and Blackmer, who as church officials were also interested that LSU represent the SDA Church's standards and mission). What was most remarkable was not the legal ruling, however, but Judge Webster's lengthy comment on the merits of the case, during which he called the lawsuit “extraordinarily ill-advised.”
The plaintiffs appealed the judgment, and the appeal has been pending in the court of appeals for nearly a year. Had the appeal been pursued, the court of appeals, had it found that the trial court erred, could have reversed the trial court's grant of summary judgment and remanded the case to the trial court for trial. But this past Monday the NAD released a statement that the LSU-3 had dropped their appeal:
By the three plaintiffs dismissing their appeal, the case is ended with Judge Webster’s ruling, dismissing the case, becoming final. The plaintiffs were not paid any money to dismiss the appeal.
“We are grateful that this lawsuit has ended and that the church and La Sierra University can focus all of our attention and resources to the quality education of our students,” said Daniel Jackson, president of the North American Division.
It is a blessing, and a relief, that the the plaintiffs failed in what was essentially a bid to set a legal precedent that the SDA Church's colleges are separate from the Church and not under the Church's control.
But the termination of this lawsuit after three and a half years does not end concerns regarding whether La Sierra University is upholding church doctrines. The specter of pre-trial discovery effectively cut off all communication regarding LSU at the GC level, including communications to the Adventist Accrediting Association at a critical time in LSU's Adventist accrediting process. Now that the litigation is finally over, an open conversation can start again, and certainly the AAA should be made aware of everything that has happened at LSU.
Clearly, the state courts of California will not, for the time being, be made a party to attempts to separate our Adventist colleges from the SDA Church. But whether the Church itself can summon the will and the wit to re-focus La Sierra on Adventist doctrine and the Adventist mission is still in grave doubt.