By Bob Allen
A federal judge has dismissed a $12.4 million lawsuit challenging the 2013 sale of Glorieta Conference Center for $1, finding that the homeowners who sued without representation by a lawyer failed to meet the legal standard required to present the case before a jury.
U.S. District Court Judge James O. Browning of Albuquerque, N.M., dismissed claims March 31 alleging misconduct by LifeWay Christian Resources, the Southern Baptist Convention and the SBC Executive Committee in the transfer of the 2,400-acre retreat near Santa Fe opened by Southern Baptists in 1952 to a newly formed corporation called Glorieta 2.0.
Arkansas couple Kirk and Susie Tompkins, owners of one of 65 homes built on lots leased on a year-to-year basis from Glorieta, filed a lawsuit in September 2013 seeking to stop the sale. They accused LifeWay officials of fraud, breach of contract and failure to abide by the SBC charter, bylaws and constitution in how the sale was conducted.
Despite repeated opportunities, Judge Browning said, the Tompkinses failed to assert any claims on which relief can be granted. They also lack jurisdiction, he said, because they are not shareholders in LifeWay and therefore not in a position to vindicate the organization’s legal rights.
The judge turned down a request by LifeWay lawyers to order the couple to pay court costs, because his decision “was not decided on the lease agreement’s terms, but rather on questions of jurisdiction.”
LifeWay President Thom Rainer said he thanked God for the news.
“This process has been extended, painful and costly,” Rainer said in a LifeWay news release. “I am so thankful to get this ordeal behind us, leaving no doubt of our integrity throughout this process, and after so many months of baseless attacks on our ministry partners, trustees and executive leadership.”
Kirk Tompkins said in a statement April 2 that he plans to appeal.
“The past 18 months of the lawsuit have focused solely on issues of law procedure,” Tompkins said. Rather than vindicating LifeWay’s actions, he said, legal arguments in the ruling “are about why the matter cannot proceed to trial.”
The allegations of wrongdoing in his lawsuit “have not been addressed,” Tompkins said, and that is one of the reasons he is filing an appeal.
Concerning costs, Tompkins said Rainer could have avoided the lawsuit if he had answered any of the five letters that Tompkins wrote to him over three years before finally going to court. Those costs escalated, he said, when LifeWay officials chose to defend their actions instead of settling the dispute through honest dealings with the Glorieta leaseholders.
At the time of the sale, the new owners of Glorieta offered homeowners three options: a 12-year lease after which any facilities not removed from the lot become property of Glorieta 2.0, a one-time buyout of up to $40,000 later increased to a $100,000 maximum or getting a tax benefit by donating their property to the new nonprofit Glorieta 2.0.
Tompkins said the buyout offer was far less than the fair market value of homes in the area. Rainer said fair market value was hard to gauge, because most homes for sale are not built on land owned by somebody else.
The couple based their breach-of-contract claim on a Baptist Press article published in 2009 quoting a LifeWay official as saying changes being made at the conference center “will position Glorieta for the next 50 years.” After that they did an extensive remodeling, they claimed, increasing their home’s value to more than $430,000.
The judge responded that under New Mexico law, an implied contract is created only when one party “creates a reasonable expectation” in another. The comments in the news article, he said, did not specifically address Tompkins or imply any intent to renew leases on Glorieta property. Thereby they “do not support the inference of an implied contract” between the leaseholders and LifeWay.
Judge Browning also said parties alleging fraud or negligence must “state with particularity the circumstances” including time, place and content of any misrepresentation of material facts. Allegations in the Tompkins lawsuit are “conclusory declarations” instead of provable facts, he said, and that he “cannot find any factual allegations” to infer any of the individuals named in the lawsuit are liable for any alleged misconduct.
While pro se litigants — those who appear for themselves instead of retaining a lawyer — are entitled to more latitude than a trained attorney, Browning said, that does not relieve the Tompkinses of the burden of “alleging sufficient facts on which a recognized legal claim could be based.”
Tompkins said in a February email that he and his wife went to federal court without hiring an attorney “to demonstrate our character in relying upon God to provide us wisdom, knowledge and discovery, which He has done beyond my human understanding.”
“I can only imagine what a jury of New Mexico ordinary citizens will do when the facts documented by our filings in court are presented,” he said.