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Nancy Stevens v. Optimum Health Institute -- San Diego

August 24, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hayes, Judge:


The matters before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (ECF No. 68), and Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment and/or Partial Summary Judgment (ECF No. 69).

I. Background

On November 13, 2009, Plaintiff initiated this action by filing a Complaint. (ECF No. 1). On January 13, 2010, Plaintiff filed a Second Amended Complaint, which is the operative pleading. (ECF No. 8). Plaintiff, who is blind, alleges Defendants Optimum Health Institute -- San Diego ("OHI") and Robert Nees violated the California Unruh Civil Rights Act ("Unruh Act"), Cal. Civ. Code § 51, et. seq., by denying her services in a business establishment because of her disability, and the California Disabled Persons Act ("Disabled Persons Act" or "DPA"), Cal. Civ. Code § 54, et. seq., by denying her access to a place of public accommodation because of her disability. Plaintiff seeks damages, declaratory relief, injunctive relief, and attorneys' fees and costs.

On February 26, 2010, Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss the Second Amended Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), contending that the Unruh Act and the DPA are not applicable to OHI. (ECF No. 26).

On May 5, 2010, the Court issued an Order denying the Motion to Dismiss. (ECF No. 26). The Court stated: "[D]etermining whether these laws apply to a non-profit religious corporation requires a court to examine a factual record of the entity's practices, services, and interaction with members of the public, among other factors. The Court concludes that evidentiary analysis is not appropriate at the motion to dismiss stage." Id. at 8 (citations omitted).

On March 15, 2011, Plaintiff filed the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (ECF No. 68), and Defendants filed the Motion for Summary Judgment and/or Partial Summary Judgment (ECF No. 69). The parties attached evidence to their respective motions. The parties also filed a Stipulation of Facts for Purposes of Summary Judgment Only ("Stipulation of Facts"). (ECF No. 67).

On April 8, 2011, the parties filed opposition briefs and evidentiary objections. (ECF Nos. 79, 80).

On April 15, 2011, the parties filed reply briefs. (ECF Nos. 82, 83).

On April 28, 2011, the Court conducted oral argument on the pending motions. (ECF No. 87).

II. Facts

Defendant OHI is a non-profit, religious organization which "operates a holistic health program in Lemon Grove, California." (Stipulation of Facts ¶¶ 2, 4, 66; ECF No. 67). OHI "is a subordinate organization of Free Sacred Trinity Church," which is a non-profit, religious organization that "commissions missions to carry out the church's programs and promote its beliefs." Id. ¶¶ 1, 3, 5-6. OHI's website provides that the Free Sacred Trinity Church ("FSTC") is a "non-denominational church rooted in early Judeo-Christian doctrine," and its "primary ministry is one of healing carried out at its Mission, the Optimum Health Institute." Id. ¶¶ 41-42.

"A primary function of [OHI] is to teach its specific program to attendees." Id. ¶ 19. OHI's "facilities are used to host its program," and OHI "is not a recreational facility." Id. ¶¶ 20-21. "Members of the public who are not enrolled in [OHI]'s program cannot participate in the program." Id. ¶ 23. OHI is a gated facility and OHI "exercises control over who may visit [OHI] and attend its programs." Id. ¶¶ 32-33. OHI has an on-site chapel which is used for religious worship and teaching, and OHI "provides religious materials to its guests including Bibles, upon request." Id. ¶¶ 35-38. OHI's website states: OHI is a "spiritual retreat" and a "safe and sacred place" with a "monastic-like setting"; "people from all religious traditions" who attend OHI "gather in prayer circles ... where they share how their stay at OHI has transformed their lives as a result of miraculous healings on all levels"; OHI has a specific set of values that are based on "ancient spiritual disciplines"; and OHI's history includes "biblically and essene based dietary and cleansing practices." Id. ¶¶ 49, 51-53, 57, 61. OHI conducts daily prayer circles and daily liturgies as part of its program. Id. ¶¶ 87-88.

"OHI does not make decisions about who may attend its program based on religious beliefs." Id. ¶ 89. Attendees of OHI's program who are not missionaries or employees of Free Sacred Trinity Church "are not required to adhere to any specific religious value or belief or ... be a member of OHI or FSTC." Id. Attendees of OHI's program who are not missionaries or employees of Free Sacred Trinity Church "are not required to participate in any of the activities offered by OHI during its program, including, for example, prayer circles or other religious activities, although their participation is encouraged." Id. ¶ 91.

Defendant Nees, the Ecclesiastical Superior of the Free Sacred Trinity Church, submitted two Declarations. (ECF Nos. 69-2, 80-2). Nees stated:

The Church and [OHI] welcome all persons, including disabled persons, with the exception that neither the Church nor the Institute allows persons to proselytize other faiths, ... [be] disruptive, ... [or] interfere with or otherwise disrupt the spiritual paths of those attending the Institute.... In the past, I have required persons disrupting the Institute's program to leave the mission for doing such things as proselytizing a different faith....

[OHI] charges a monetary fee as tuition to participate in its program, which serves as a source of funding for the program. (Nees Decl. ¶¶ 19-20, 22; ECF No. 69-2). Nees stated:

As part of the program, inquirers and adherents may reside at OHI in guest rooms. But OHI is not a hotel. Instead, the guest rooms are intended to enhance the monastic experience of the OHI's holistic health. OHI's accommodations and grounds, including a prayer chapel and other areas for meditation, are designed and maintained to create a sacred space for the Holy Spirit and a setting conducive to spiritual reflection and rejuvenation. These differences also demonstrate how OHI is different than a secular health spa; OHI's program is religious and religion is infused in all aspects of the OHI program....

Although much of the OHI program focuses on diet, food preparation, and ritual purification, the Church's ultimate goal is to bring the participants to an understanding of their purpose in life and to get them to affirm or reaffirm the reality of God....

We believe that all paths eventually lead to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. For this reason, we do not evangelize to OHI's participants. (Nees Decl. ¶¶ 10, 15-16; ECF No. 80-2).

Nees stated:

[T]he Church uses the words 'inquirer' and 'adherent' to refer to individuals who come to learn of, and to those who have accepted, respectively, the theology and practices of the Church.... All first-time guests at OHI mission [are] 'inquirer[s]' within the view of the Church. Those individuals who thereafter return to an OHI mission for additional teaching are 'adherents' within the view of the Church. During periods when they are in residence at an OHI mission, both 'inquirers' and 'adherents' are sometimes referred to as 'guests.'" ...

Those adherents who frequently come to an OHI mission may, from time-to-time, refer to themselves as a 'member' of FSTC. However, ... the formal or legal Membership of OHI is limited to only those individuals who serve on FSTC's Board of Elders.... [T]here are approximately 22,000 individuals who are 'adherents' in the eyes of the Free Sacred Trinity Church.

Id. ¶¶ 38-39, 41.

OHI's website states: "By 2006, the Optimum Health Institute, as the primary healing ministry of FSTC, has helped over 100,000 people." (ECF NO. 67-1 at 32). OHI's website contains articles which describe OHI as "an educational institute where people come to cleanse their bodies and to learn improved eating habits," and "the best bargain in health retreats in the country." (ECF No. 67-1 at 87, 92).

Plaintiff submits a Declaration from Ruth Haynes, who stated: I attended the wellness program at [OHI] in ... 2007.... I was registered in the program as a 'guest.' Throughout my stay at OHI, staff members repeatedly referred to me and other attendees as 'guests'.... I was not an 'adherent' and do not ... know what that term means.... I am not now a member of any church or organized religion, nor was I at the time of my visit to the OHI facilities.

(ECF No. 21-2 at 1-2). Plaintiff submits a Declaration from Dixie Boggs, who stated:

I attended the wellness program at [OHI] ... numerous times over the course of several years and, as a three month missionary volunteer, I worked in the main kitchen each week and I [led] the morning lymphatic exercise class. OHI offers a cleansing and dextoxification program to improve physical and mental health.... When I participated in the program offered at OHI, I was either registered as a guest or I was a missionary volunteer. Staff members referred to me as a 'guest' or as a 'missionary volunteer.' At no time was I required to become a member of OHI or of Free Sacred Trinity Church in order to attend the wellness program at OHI, to register in the program or to serve as a missionary volunteer.... I am not now a member of any church or organized religion, nor was I a member of any church or organized religion at the time of my visits to the OHI-San Diego facility. (ECF No. 21-3 at 1-2).

Plaintiff, a resident of Bend, Oregon, "is blind and uses a guide dog or cane because of her disability." (Stipulation of Facts ¶ 65; ECF No. 67). In February 2009, Plaintiff telephoned OHI "to ask about the cost of OHI's holistic health program." Id. ¶ 67. Plaintiff was told that "the program was three weeks long and that she could split the weeks so that [Plaintiff] could visit the facility for a week prior to her scheduled cancer surgery." Id. Plaintiff was told that "she could not bring her guide dog to the facility," and Plaintiff responded that "she desired to try OHI's program for one week, using just her cane." Id. ¶¶ 72-73.

During later phone conversations with OHI representatives, Plaintiff was told that "she could only attend the program if [Plaintiff] brought someone with her" because "not only was OHI concerned that [Plaintiff] would fall down stairs, OHI was also concerned that she might injure her hand in a juicing machine, given [Plaintiff]'s blindness." Id. ¶¶ 77-78. Over the course of multiple phone conversations in February 2009 and April 2009, Plaintiff told OHI representatives that "she did not need anyone's assistance, that she was independent and able to care for herself"; "she has lived independently for over 20 years"; "she has traveled all over the world as part of a paralympic ski team and as the world champion blind woman triathlete"; "she travels independently wherever she goes, utilizing public transportation and her excellent mobility skills"; and "she has skillfully managed all of her household appliances and food preparation utensils, including knifes, food processors and blenders." Id. ¶¶ 78, 81. An OHI representative told Plaintiff that she would not be permitted to attend the OHI program by herself "because, among other reasons, there were too many stairs." Id. ¶ 80. The OHI representative stated that "OHI would 'compromise' by letting [Plaintiff] bring a companion with her and OHI would only charge [Plaintiff] half-price for the companion." Id. Plaintiff informed Defendants that this requirement was "an unnecessary and significant burden on her," and Plaintiff offered to "tour[] the OHI facility and ... show Nees that she could successfully navigate the OHI facility." Id. ¶ 81. "OHI told [Plaintiff] that she would be welcome at OHI, but only if she brought a companion." Id. ¶ 84.

Nees sent Plaintiff an e-mail which stated that "guests are required to be able to care for themselves without staff intervention" and the OHI staff could not "guide guests on an individual basis." Id. ¶ 82. Nees stated that OHI takes "our guests['] safety from a higher authority th[a]n from a simple legal perspective." Id. In a Declaration, Nees stated:

The grounds of OHI are sacred. In order to maintain a pure environment for healing and worship, OHI cannot--and does not--welcome animals.... [I]n the eyes of the Church, based upon the teachings of the Old Testament, OHI's grounds are sacred but animals are not.... Allowing animals into the grounds is antithetical to the promotion of a safe, healing environment at the Institute, particularly for people who have animal phobias or allergies....

In my role as Ecclesiastical Superior, I determined that even a remote chance of Plaintiff, attending OHI without a sighted companion, needing assistance in the unfamiliar environment of OHI or during the OHI program, posed an unacceptable risk of disrupting the spiritual path of others in attendance. (Nees Decl. ¶¶ 17-18, 29; ECF No. 80-2).

III. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

The Second Amended Complaint alleges that the Court has subject matter jurisdiction over this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332.

On April 18, 2011, the Court issued an Order stating that "Plaintiff shall file a submission demonstrating that her claim meets the amount in controversy necessary for diversity subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332." (ECF No. 84).

On April 26, 2011, Plaintiff filed a response to the Court's April 18, 2011 Order. (ECF No. 85). Plaintiff contends that her actual damages, statutory minimum damages and anticipated attorney's fees each exceed $75,000.

On June 8, 2011, Defendants filed a reply to Plaintiff's response. (ECF No. 88).

Defendants concede that "Plaintiff's argument concerning the potential for an award of attorney's fees may be supported by existing Ninth Circuit precedent...." Id. at 2.

Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, and possess only that power authorized by the Constitution and federal statute. See Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). This Court has "original jurisdiction of all civil actions where the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75,000, exclusive of interest and costs, and is between ... citizens of different States...." 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). "Whenever it appears by suggestion of the parties or otherwise that the court lacks jurisdiction of the subject matter, the court shall dismiss the action." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(h)(3). A court may raise the question of subject matter jurisdiction, sua sponte, at any time during the pendency of the action, even on appeal. See Snell v. Cleveland, Inc., 316 F.3d 822, 826 (9th Cir. 2002).

When alleging the jurisdictional amount to maintain a suit in diversity, a plaintiff must demonstrate a good faith, minimally reasonable belief that the suit might result in a judgment in excess of that amount. See St. Paul Mercury Indemnity Co. v. Red Cab Co., 303 U.S. 283, 288 (1938). Once a plaintiff's jurisdictional allegations are challenged, the plaintiff bears the burden of proving his claim meets the jurisdictional amount. See McNutt v. Gen. Motors Acceptance Corp., 298 U.S. 178, 189 (1936); Sanchez v. Monumental Life Ins. Co., 102 F.2d 398, 403-04 (9th Cir. 1996). If it appears to a legal certainty that the claim is actually for less than the requisite jurisdictional amount, the Court must dismiss. See St. Paul Mercury Indemnity Co., 303 U.S. at 288 ("[T]he sum claimed by the plaintiff controls if the claim is apparently made in good faith. It must appear to a legal certainty that the claim is really for less than the jurisdictional amount to justify dismissal...."); see also Sanchez, 102 F.3d at 402 ("[T]he St. Paul Mercury 'legal certainty' test is applicable in ... cases ... brought in the federal court in which the plaintiff has filed a good faith complaint alleging damages in excess of the required jurisdictional minimum....").

The Second Amended Complaint adequately alleges that all parties are of diverse citizenship and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000. After reviewing the submissions of the parties, the Court finds that Plaintiff has adequately shown that her claim meets the jurisdictional amount in controversy requirement. Cf. Galt G/S v. JSS Scandinavia, 142 F.3d 1150, 1156 (9th Cir. 1998) ("[W]here an underlying statute authorizes an award of attorneys' fees, either with mandatory or discretionary language, such fees may be ...

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