Analysis Abortion

The Bishops’ Lawsuit: A Colossal and Purposeful Drain on Public Funds

Bridgette Dunlap

The government is hemorrhaging money defending a regulation it will never enforce against the New York Archdiocese.

This week, the government filed an emergency motion in the New York Archdiocese’s lawsuit against the contraceptive coverage mandate, requesting that the court halt proceedings and dismiss the case. The emergency is that the government is hemorrhaging money defending a regulation it will never enforce against the Archdiocese.

Roman Catholic Archdiocese of NY v. Sebelius is the only lawsuit out of the 23 brought by religiously affiliated organizations not to be dismissed at the district court level for lack of standing or ripeness. The cases have been dismissed because religiously affiliated non-profits are currently completely exempt from the contraceptive coverage requirement. They enjoy a one-year safe harbor period provided for the religious accommodation to be finalized. If you haven’t been injured, you can’t sue.

The government swore up and down from the day the case was filed that the rule in its current form would never be enforced against the Archdiocese and its co-plaintiffs and that a new rule with a new religious accommodation was on the way. As promised, the Obama administration released a new proposed rule, is now reviewing comments from the public on it, and will release the final rule by August. However, in the New York Archdiocese case, Judge Brian M. Cogan found that the administration’s assurances were not enough and that the impending threat of the rule was injury enough for the plaintiffs to proceed.

The Archdiocese et al. proceeded to serve the government with requests for every document under the sun. “Discovery” is the process in which litigating parties get evidence by requesting relevant documents from each other. To respond to a document request, a party has to review documents to determine whether they are responsive to the request and make a log of documents that are responsive but won’t be turned over because they are protected by attorney-client or another privilege. Computer searches only get you so far; a human attorney or paralegal has to determine if a document is responsive or privileged.

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Plaintiffs in these cases being 1 for 23, the Archdiocese may have sought to make the most of its unique situation. It made discovery requests the government calls “enormously burdensome and irrelevant.” The Archdiocese also noticed a deposition of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Lawsuits are brought over regulations all the time—it is pretty audacious to demand a cabinet member show up in person for yours. That was indeed too far, and Judge Cogan granted Sebelius a protective order.

The plaintiffs didn’t stop there. The Archdiocese subpoenaed the Executive Office of the President (EOP), even though it isn’t a party to the lawsuit, many of the requested documents are protected by various privileges, and you must have an extra good reason to get documents from the president. Also, the EOP being in D.C., the subpoena was issued in a district that has thrown out three of these 23 lawsuits for lack of jurisdiction.

The Archdiocese later withdrew the subpoena. We don’t know why. Perhaps it realized it was an unreasonable request. This did not happen, alas, until after our tax dollars were put to work on a very lengthy motion to quash the subpoena. But whatever that cost, it pales in comparison to the expenditures of various agencies on the New York document requests; in the emergency motion, the government estimates completing the requested document production would take eight years and cost over $10 million.

We should take that estimate with a grain of salt, of course, but the government has sought to back it up. Attached to the emergency motion are declarations from officials of various offices and agencies as to what they have spent so far on this one case and what they estimate it will cost to finish. Two-hundred HHS employees have spent have spent over 2,000 hours and located over 7.6 million pages of potentially responsive documents so far. That has cost over $177,000. Those documents haven’t been reviewed by HHS or their Department of Justice counsel yet. The Internal Revenue Service has spent over a quarter of a million dollars.

The lawyers, paralegals, and IT professionals needed to complete discovery are expensive—even those of the lower-paid government variety. Offices that don’t have enough staff for this have hired contract lawyers, but they can’t afford to do that anymore because of the sequester. Lest you think it’s not a big deal to have government lawyers tied up or that the effect is minimal in the scope of things, consider one example contained in the declaration from the Department of Labor (DOL). The DOL’s Plan Benefits Security Division investigates and litigates cases of fraud or mismanagement in employee benefits. The division, which recovered $1.38 billion for U.S. workers in 2011, argues that the impact on the public interest of putting its attorneys on document review will be far greater than the financial loss.

The Archdiocese, which employs 10,000 people in programs receiving many millions of dollars in government grants each year, will never have to provide health plans with contraceptive coverage under the rule as proposed. Despite this, it is waging a legal battle that is imposing significant costs on the taxpayers who fund its work. And this is only one lawsuit. With the additional cases brought by secular for-profit corporations, over 60 lawsuits have been filed in this scorched earth litigation campaign—which we have to pay to defend.

On the same day the emergency motion was filed, Judge Cogan granted it in part, staying all discovery and proceedings until the contraceptive coverage rule is final. So the government lawyers can get back to other business for the moment. But once the rule is final, I expect we will see that some if not all of those 22 dismissed cases (the ones that haven’t already been appealed) will be refiled.

Back in February, with the sequester looming, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which, like the Archdiocese of New York, is led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, signed a statement by religious leaders urging legislators to protect the interests of the poor. The Bishops’ litigiousness does not reflect the same awareness of our limited resources nor concern for those who will be hurt most by the sequester. Instead, the Archdiocese seeks to deprive its employees of affordable contraception—provided by an outside company—that will enable employees to limit their families to the size they want and can support, using up resources that are needed elsewhere in a time of economic distress.

Analysis Law and Policy

After a Year, What Has the Smear Campaign Against Planned Parenthood Accomplished?

Jessica Mason Pieklo & Imani Gandy

One year after David Daleiden and the Center for Medical Progress released the first of a series of videos targeting Planned Parenthood, there is still no evidence of wrongdoing by the reproductive health-care provider.

See more of our coverage on the anti-choice front group, the Center for Medical Progress here.

One year ago, David Daleiden released the first in a series of videos that he claimed proved Planned Parenthood employees were unlawfully profiting from fetal tissue donation and violating the federal “partial-birth abortion” ban. With the backing and counsel of Operation Rescue President Troy Newman and the help of a woman named Sandra Merritt, among others, Daleiden had created a front group called the Center for Medical Progress (CMP).

He then disguised CMP as a legitimate biomedical research organization—despite overwhelming evidence, including CMP’s own corporate documents, to the contrary—and used it to gain access to abortion clinics and private meetings. The organization released 11 videos by the end of 2015; in a year’s time, Daleiden and CMP had released a total of 14 videos. All have been debunked as deceptively edited and misleading.

So what have those videos truly accomplished? Here’s a summary of the fallout, one year later.

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Lawmakers Mounted Attacks on Planned Parenthood

In response to CMP’s videos, more than a dozen conservative governors launched investigations into or tried to defund Planned Parenthood affiliates in their states. States like Arkansas, Kansas, and Utah had their attempts to defund the reproductive health-care centers blocked by federal court order. The Obama administration also warned states that continuing to try and strip Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood centers violated federal law, though that did not stop such efforts throughout the country.

Additionally, congressional Republicans began their own investigations and defunding efforts, holding at least five separate hearings and as many defunding votes. Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) President Cecile Richards provided hours of congressional testimony on the lawful fetal tissue donation option available to some Planned Parenthood patients. Other affiliates do not offer such donation programs at all.

Not a single investigation at either the state or federal level has produced evidence of any wrongdoing. Still, many continue today. To date, Congress alone has spent almost $790,000 on the matter.

Violence Against Clinics Escalated

Just weeks after CMP released its first video, there was an act of arson at a Planned Parenthood health center in Aurora, Illinois. The following month, and after the release of three more smear videos, a car fire broke out behind a locked gate at Planned Parenthood in New Orleans. Abortion clinic staff and doctors around the country reported a significant uptick in threats of violence as Daleiden and CMP released the videos in a slow drip.

That violence spiked in November 2015, when Robert Lewis Dear Jr. was arrested for opening fire at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, a siege that left three dead. Dear told investigating officers his violence was “for the babies” because Planned Parenthood was “selling baby parts.” A Colorado court has so far deemed Dear incompetent to stand trial. Dear’s siege was not the last incident of clinic violence apparently inspired by Daleiden and CMP, but it has, to date, been the most lethal.

Dear’s next competency hearing is currently scheduled for Aug. 11.

A Lot of Lawsuits Got Filed

The tissue procurement company StemExpress and the National Abortion Federation (NAF) filed suits in July of last year. In January 2016, Planned Parenthood did the same, alleging that Daleiden and CMP had engaged in conspiracy and racketeering, among other things.

StemExpress Sued Daleiden and CMP

StemExpress, one company to whom Planned Parenthood was supposedly selling tissue, sued CMP, Daleiden, and Merritt in California state court. StemExpress asked the court for an injunction blocking CMP from releasing any more videos that were surreptitiously recorded at meetings the pair of anti-choice activists had with StemExpress staff. The complaint also included allegations of conspiracy, invasion of privacy, and conversion of property (based upon Daleiden’s taking confidential information from a former StemExpress employee, including accessing her StemExpress email account after she was no longer employed at the company).

Although it issued a temporary restraining order (TRO), the court ultimately declined to convert that into an injunction, citing First Amendment concerns that to do so would constitute prior restraint, or pre-publication censorship, on Daleiden and Merritt’s right to free speech. In other words, Daleiden and Merritt are free—at least under this court order—to continue releasing videos involving StemExpress employees while the suit proceeds.

The case is set for trial in January 2017.

National Abortion Federation Sued Daleiden and CMP

About the same time that CMP and Daleiden were battling StemExpress in court, NAF filed suit in federal court in San Francisco, alleging civil conspiracy, racketeering, fraud, and breach of contract, among other claims. Like StemExpress, NAF sought a temporary restraining order blocking any further release of the attack videos. Judge William Orrick issued the TRO and later, after a protracted discovery battle, converted it into a preliminary injunction. Thus, CMP is prohibited from publishing any videos of footage taken at NAF’s annual meetings, which Daleiden and Merritt infiltrated in 2014 and 2015, while the suit proceeds.

As they had in their battle with StemExpress, Daleiden and CMP claimed that prohibiting publication of the videos constituted a prior restraint on speech, in violation of the First Amendment. But unlike StemExpress, which was trying to prohibit the publication of videos detailing conversations that took place in a restaurant, NAF sought to prohibit publication of video footage secretly recorded at meetings. Judge Orrick found that Daleiden had waived his First Amendment rights when he signed a confidentiality agreement at those meetings promising not to disclose any information he gained at them.

And, as in other court battles, one of the preeminent claims Daleiden and his cohorts raised to excuse his tactics—creating a fake tissue procurement company, assuming false identities through the use of false identification cards, getting people drunk in order to elicit damaging statements from them, and signing confidentiality agreements with no intention of following them—was that Daleiden is an investigative journalist.

Judge Orrick condemned this argument in strong terms: “Defendants engaged in repeated instances of fraud, including the manufacture of fake documents, the creation and registration with the state of California of a fake company, and repeated false statements to a numerous NAF representatives and NAF members in order to infiltrate NAF and implement their Human Capital Project. The products of that Project—achieved in large part from the infiltration—thus far have not been pieces of journalistic integrity, but misleadingly edited videos and unfounded assertions (at least with respect to the NAF materials) of criminal misconduct. Defendants did not—as Daleiden repeatedly asserts—use widely accepted investigatory journalism techniques.”

In an amicus brief in the same lawsuit, submitted to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in early June, 18 of the country’s leading journalists and journalism scholars noted that “by calling himself an ‘investigative journalist,’ Appellant David Daleiden does not make it so.”

“We believe that accepting Mr. Daleiden’s claim that he merely engaged in ‘standard undercover journalism techniques’ would be both wrong and damaging to the vital role that journalism serves in our society,” the journalists and scholars continued.

Daleiden and CMP have appealed the preliminary injunction order to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the case currently sits pending a decision.

Planned Parenthood Sued Daleiden and CMP

Six months after StemExpress and NAF filed their lawsuits against the orchestrators of the smear campaign, PPFA filed a whopping one of its own in California federal court, alleging civil conspiracy, racketeering, fraud, trespass, and breach of contract, among other civil and criminal allegations. PPFA was joined by several affiliates—including Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, where Dear was arrested for opening fire in November.

Daleiden has asked the court to dismiss Planned Parenthood’s claims. The court has so far declined to do so.

David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt Were Indicted on Felony Charges

Daleiden and his allies have not fared well in the civil lawsuits filed against them. But both Daleiden and Merritt also have pending criminal cases. After an investigation into Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast sparked by Daleiden’s claims, a Texas grand jury declined to indict the health-care organization for any criminal conduct. The grand jury instead returned an indictment against Daleiden and Merritt on a felony charge of tampering with a governmental record, related to their use of false California driver’s licenses in order to gain entrance into the clinic. Daleiden was additionally charged with a misdemeanor count related to the purchase or sale of human organs.

In June, Harris County Criminal Court at Law Judge Diane Bull dismissed the misdemeanor charge. Daleiden and Merritt’s attorneys, who called the dismissal a victory for the anti-choice movement, are still trying to get the felony charged dismissed.

News Human Rights

Lawsuit: Religious Groups Are Denying Abortion Care to Teen Refugees

Nicole Knight Shine

The suit accuses the federal government of paying millions to religious grantees that refuse to provide unaccompanied minors with legally required reproductive health services.

Two years ago, 17-year-old Rosa was raped as she fled north from her home country in Central America to the United States. Placed in a Catholic shelter in Florida, the teen learned she was pregnant, and told shelter officials that if she couldn’t end the pregnancy, she’d kill herself. She was hospitalized for suicidal thoughts. Upon her release, the facility in which she’d been originally placed rejected her because of her desire for an abortion, according to a federal lawsuit filed Friday. So did another. Both, reads the lawsuit, were federal contractors paid to care for unaccompanied minors like Rosa.

Rosa’s story is one in a series sketched out in a 16-page complaint brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The suit accuses the federal government of paying millions to religious grantees—including nearly $20 million over two years to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)—that refuse to provide unaccompanied minors with legally required reproductive health services, including contraception and abortion. The grantees are paid by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to house and care for young refugees.

The lawsuit, brought in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, amounts to a fresh test of the degree to which Catholic organizations and other faith-based groups can claim exemptions from federal laws and regulations on religious grounds.

“Religious liberties do not include the ability to impose your beliefs on a vulnerable population and deny them legal health care,” said Jennifer Chou, attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, in a phone interview with Rewire. “The government is delegating responsibility … to these religiously affiliated organizations who are then not acting in the best interest of these young people.”

Mark Weber, a spokesperson for the HHS, which includes the ORR, told Rewire via email that the agency cannot comment on pending litigation.

Escaping turmoil and abuse in their home countries, young refugees—predominantly from Central America—are fleeing to the United States, with 33,726 arriving in 2015, down from 57,496 the year before. About one-third are girls. As many as eight in ten girls and women who cross the border are sexually assaulted; it is unknown how many arrive in need of abortion care.

The federal ORR places unaccompanied minors with organizations that are paid to offer temporary shelter and a range of services, including reproductive health care, while the youths’ applications for asylum are pending. But documents the ACLU obtained indicate that some groups are withholding that health care on religious grounds and rejecting youths who request abortion care.

The 1997 “Flores agreement” and ORR’s contracts with grantees, which the ACLU cites in its lawsuit, require referrals to “medical care providers who offer pregnant [unaccompanied immigrant minors] the opportunity to be provided information and counseling regarding prenatal care and delivery; infant care, foster care, or adoption; and pregnancy termination.”

In 2016, the federal government awarded 56 grants to 30 organizations to provide care to unaccompanied minors, including 11 that the ACLU claims impose religious restrictions on reproductive health care.

In one case, ORR officials struggled to find accommodations for 14-year-old Maria, who wanted to end her pregnancy, according to the complaint. An ORR official wrote, according to a document the ACLU obtained, that the agency would have liked to transfer Maria to Florida to be near family, but “both of the shelters in Florida are faith-based and will not take the child to have this procedure,” meaning an abortion.

In another, the complaint reads, 16-year-old Zoe was placed with Youth for Tomorrow, a faith-based shelter in Virginia, where she learned she was pregnant. She asked for abortion counseling, which was delayed nearly two weeks, the complaint says. Learning of her decision to end the pregnancy, Youth for Tomorrow asked to transfer Zoe elsewhere because of its abortion prohibition, even though Zoe said she was happy at the shelter.

For vulnerable youths, such transfers represent a form of “secondary trauma,” according to the ACLU’s Chou.

“These women have already endured so much,” she told Rewire. “The process of transferring these youths from shelter to shelter tears them away from their only existing support system in the U.S.”

Federal officials, according to the complaint, were aware that the religious grantees would withhold abortion referrals. In one case, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston was awarded more than $8 million between 2013 and 2016, although it stated in its grant application that rape survivors wouldn’t be offered abortion care, but instead permitted to “process the trauma of the rape while also exploring the decision of whether to keep the baby or plan an adoption.”

The lawsuit also claims that a contract with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops included language requiring unaccompanied minors who were pregnant to be given information and counseling about pregnancy termination, but the ORR removed that language after the USCCB complained.

The USCCB did not respond to Rewire‘s request for comment. But in a letter last year to the ORR, the USCCB and five religious groups, including some ORR grantees, wrote they could not facilitate health-care services for unaccompanied minors that run contrary to their beliefs.

The lawsuit is the second the ACLU has filed recently against the federal government over religious privileges.

Last month, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act suit demanding that the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services release complaints against federally funded Catholic hospitals, where patients have reported being denied emergency medical care in violation of federal law.

In 2009, the ACLU also sued the federal government for allowing USCCB to impose religious restrictions on a taxpayer-funded reproductive health program for trafficking survivors. In 2012, a district court ruled in the ACLU’s favor, and the government appealed. The First Circuit Court of Appeal later dismissed the case as “moot” because the government did not renew USCCB’s contract.