A court decision that would have netted North Idaho couple Jeremy and Kristy Morris $75,000 after a jury found a Hayden homeowners association engaged in religious discrimination is looking a lot more lean these days.
Last week, Idaho District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill – in a rare move, according to the judge’s own words – reversed the jury’s unanimous decision. He concluded the West Hayden States First Addition Homeowners Association did not discriminate against the couple, deciding the couple broke the association’s covenants, conditions and restrictions when they held two massive Christmas celebrations in 2015 and 2016.
“This case is simply different,” Winmill wrote in his decision filed Thursday. “Plaintiffs have failed to set forth facts that are a legally sufficient basis upon which a reasonable jury could conclude that the Homeowner’s Association violated … the Fair Housing Act.”
He set aside the $75,000 jury award and replaced it with just $4 – $1 for each of the Morris’ claims.
“We look forward to appealing this reversal of the unanimous jury verdict to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals,” wrote Jeremy Morris in an email Tuesday morning. “The judge acknowledged he has never (or almost never) substituted his opinion for that of a jury in 31 years. The unanimous opinion of 7 jurors must be given great weight in a country that values the principles undergirding a right to trial by jury.”
It was billed as the ultimate war on Christmas. On one side, a devoutly Christian couple throwing extravagant celebrations for thousands at a home decked to the halls with 200,000 light bulbs. At times, even featuring a camel and donkey to re-create the Nativity scene.
On the opposite side, a Hayden homeowners association with specific rules that prohibited such excessive celebrations – and the noise that follows – in favor of a more modest showing of holiday spirit.
The battle came to a head when the Morrises in 2017 sued the West Hayden States First Addition Homeowners Association in U.S. District Court in Coeur d’Alene, arguing the homeowners association tried to block the couple from throwing their yearly large-scale Christmas party. The association countersued.
Before a lawsuit was filed, however, Jeremy Morris contacted several media outlets. He was featured in a 2015 story on Fox News with a headline “Might offend non-Christians? Man told to remove Christmas display.”
A decision was reached in November in favor of the Morrises. The jury awarded the couple $60,000 in compensatory damages and $15,000 in punitive damages. Then came the victory lap, as Jeremy Morris talked again to local and national media outlets.
Morris criticized Winmill’s decision on Facebook, writing: “I guess he thought that seven jurors were not able to decide for themselves that TAPES exposing the scheme were ‘evidence,’ ” he posted Friday. “Looking forward to setting some precedent in the 9th Circuit. Protections for 100 million Americans!”
The judge’s analysis looked at three areas he believed jurors got it wrong – the intent behind a letter sent by the association in 2015, evidence heard by the jury that was later stricken that prejudiced the association and a general lack of evidence from the Morrises proving religious discrimination.
The letter, according to the Morrises, was written after the couple contacted the association in late December 2014, letting them know their intention to purchase a home in the neighborhood. The lawsuit states the couple reviewed the association’s restrictions and found their planned Christmas program, which the couple said also raises money for families of cancer patients, didn’t violate any rules.
The first draft of the association’s response, written by one board member and never sent to the Morrises, denied the request, saying “some of our residents are avowed atheists and I don’t even want to think of the problems that could bring up.” It also referred to the “riff-raff” the Christmas event would attract.
“We don’t allow ‘those kind’ in our neighborhood,” it read.
A revised version cleaned up some of the language, including changing “atheists” to “non-Christians” or people of “another faith,” and was eventually sent by another board member with the approval of then-president Jennifer Scott.
Winmill wrote that the board’s intent wasn’t to discriminate against Christians or Christmas, but rather to not make exceptions in the rules in favor of the holiday.
“Far from being intolerant, the January 2015 Letter’s religious reference was an attempt to respect religious pluralism,” Winmill wrote.
As for stricken evidence, Winmill took issue with witness testimonies the jury heard from the Morrises and several attendees of the Christmas program who were reportedly threatened by members of the association. However, before the association’s attorneys could cross examine, the court decided the board was not liable for conduct by nonboard members.
“In this case it is exceedingly unlikely that the jury was actually able to set aside the testimony of nine witnesses regarding threats they received from third parties,” Winmill wrote.
Winmill said testimony Jeremy Morris provided about one neighbor in particular “undoubtedly remained in the mind of the jury despite the Court’s instruction.” That neighbor, according to testimony, was recorded “surreptitiously” giving a “death threat.” However, Winmill concludes it was more hyperbole than reality, saying the statements “cannot be reasonably interpreted as a credible ‘death threat.’ ”
Winmill also decided the Morrises did not prove that the association intentionally discriminated against them or that the discrimination was due to religious beliefs or practices.
“In this case, the key witnesses were Mr. Morris and Ms. Scott,” Winmill wrote. “Mr. Morris was not credible.”
In addition to recording himself being “aggressively confrontational” with other homeowners and repeatedly threatening to sue, Winmill said that Morris lied in testimony, while Scott was “convincing and credible.”
“In particular, she noted that after he received the January 2015 Letter, Mr. Morris called her ten times over a month-long period,” wrote Winmill. “The conversations lasted anywhere between forty-five minutes to an hour and a half.”
During those calls, Morris was again “aggressively confrontational,” according to Winmill, leading to Scott’s resignation from her presidency.
Peter Smith, attorney for the association, said that because Scott resigned before the lawsuit was filed, she was not party to it. He said Tuesday the association was awaiting an official response from Morris on whether he will appeal.
“Obviously, we’re very pleased with the result,” he said. “But I have no indication yet as to what he will do. Whether or not he’s going to will be a question for him.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.