A Houston lawyer says a federal appeals court should reinstate an Arkansas couple’s dismissed lawsuit against LifeWay Christian Resources, because the district court did not grant them enough leeway in trying to argue their case without the aid of legal counsel.
Houston attorney Seth Kretzer, appointed in January to represent Glorieta homeowners Kirk and Susie Tompkins in their appeal of a lawsuit dismissed because they failed to assert any legal claim, said in a court filing March 8 that the couple raised a legal claim in their lawsuit in U.S. District Court, but because it was not properly labeled two judges missed it.
The Tompkinses failed to convince U.S. District Judge James O. Browning that LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention breached an implied contract with owners of 65 homes built on land leased from Glorieta by selling the 2,400-acre retreat center from underneath them for $1 in 2013.
Kretzer said the real harm to the Glorieta homeowners came not from voiding the leases, but that the lease agreement was so one-sided in LifeWay’s favor that it should be voided because of a legal doctrine of “unconscionability.”
Unconscionability is a doctrine used in contract law to describe terms so extremely unjust or overwhelmingly one-sided in favor of the party with superior bargaining power that they are deemed contrary to good conscience.
Because the law requires judges to liberally construe pleadings by parties not represented by legal counsel, Kretzer said the lower court should have construed the couple’s unconscionability claim even if they labeled it as something else.
“There is no question that the lease agreement here unreasonably benefits LifeWay,” according to the brief. “Upon its sole option to terminate a lease or let it expire, LifeWay gives itself a risk-free benefit of, in this case, a nearly half-million-dollar home. The Tompkins, in striking contrast, either lose their home or pay an exorbitant amount to have the home dismantled and removed (if possible) for transport to places unknown.”
LifeWay attorneys responded April 15 that while trial court judges are required to construe pro se pleadings liberally, they are not required to rewrite them so they are superior to the causes of action actually asserted.
LifeWay lawyers said the Glorieta homeowners “derived substantial benefits from the lease, such as being able to lease property in a desirable area at below-market rates.”
The Tompkins family renewed the lease agreement numerous times, LifeWay said, suggesting they saw the arrangement as having some value to them.
Even though not legally required to do so, LifeWay said it worked with the buyer of Glorieta to ameliorate the impact on leaseholders by offering to pay them $30 per square foot up to $100,000, accept their homes as a tax-deductible donation or extend their lease by 12 years, after which the home would belong to Glorieta 2.0. The Tompkinses turned down the offer, LifeWay attorneys said.