A ruling on whether to move a sexual molestation suit against former judge and Texas state lawmaker Paul Pressler back to state court is expected within two weeks.
Daniel Shea, attorney for plaintiff Gareld Rollins, who alleges that Pressler molested and raped him over 35 years, from the time he was 14 years old, filed a motion to remand the case back to state court in Harris County after it was previously removed to federal court on March 12.
That motion was heard by U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt in a proceeding that lasted about an hour Monday morning. Attorneys for the defendants, which include the First and Second Baptist churches of Houston, the Southern Baptist Convention and Pressler’s former law partner Jared Woodfill, argue that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applies in this case, and requires that federal court is the appropriate jurisdiction.
That doctrine was first established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1871 case Watson v. Jones, and has spurred courts to often give deference to religious organizations over ecclesiastical matters.
But that rule isn’t ironclad. For example, in the Florida case Bendross v. Readon, the court allowed a civil suit to proceed in which church board members sued over claims based on state law and didn’t challenge the church’s governance.
“Plaintiffs are not categorically prohibited from ever seeking redress from the courts solely because a religious organization is somehow involved in the dispute,” the court wrote in that case.
Shea argues the church organizations that are defendants in the Rollins suit can’t hide behind First Amendment protections, and that Texas state law is adequate to address the claims brought forth, which include a breach of fiduciary duty, assault by offensive physical contact and conspiracy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, fraud, fraudulent misrepresentation and conspiracy, and negligence.
Shea expects a ruling to occur soon. “I would think a week or two, maybe,” he told The Texas Monitor.
Shea filed affidavits in the past month from two men who claim that Pressler groped them or solicited them.
Toby Twining, 59, who now lives in New York, said Pressler grabbed his penis in a sauna at River Oaks Country Club in 1977.
Brooks Schott, 27, now an attorney in Washington state, said Pressler asked him to join him naked in a hot tub in 2016. At the time, Schott worked as an associate in the Woodfill Law Firm, owned in part by Jared Woodfill, who calls Pressler a mentor. Schott resigned his position a few months after the alleged incident.
Schott claims that Pressler’s sexual advances toward young men were well known by Woodfill and others within the firm. The 87-year-old Pressler has vigorously denied the claims and Woodfill said he was never aware of such untoward behavior by his friend.
In an emailed response to a query from the Houston Chronicle, Woodfill wrote that “the person described in Mr. Schott’s affidavit doesn’t match up with the Judge Pressler I know.”
Rollins previously sued Pressler over the same claims in 2004. That case was settled and the proceedings sealed. Shea told The Texas Monitor the new suit was filed due to concerns that Pressler might stop making monthly payments he promised to make until 2029 as part of that settlement.
Shea has indicated that more affidavits may be forthcoming in the case.
“If the course of events in Massachusetts are a guide, we will probably see a flood of victims come out of the woodwork,” he said.
Johnny Kampis can be reached at [email protected].