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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Appellate judges mostly rule against Hayden Christmas display

“’Twas the Fight Before Christmas” on Apple TV+ chronicles the battle between lawyer Jeremy Morris and his West Hayden Estates neighbors over his Christmas display.  (Courtesy of Apple TV+)

For a former Hayden couple known for hosting massive holiday shows, a recent federal appeals ruling was anything but Christmas in July.

In a split decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has mostly ruled on the side of the West Hayden Estates homeowner’s association in its opposition to Jeremy and Kristy Morris’ extravagant holiday display in a dispute that’s lasted years and even was featured on Apple TV+ titled: ‘Twas the Fight Before Christmas.

The appellate judges agreed that U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill had the legal authority and grounds in 2019 to throw out an earlier jury decision, and $75,000 in damages, in favor of the couple’s Christmas display.

However, in a written opinion that spanned 105 pages, the panel ruled that Winmill should have kept the jury’s decision intact on one of the legal arguments in dispute. The panel therefore ruled that the case could be subject to a new trial, if the parties decide to pursue it.

“After reviewing the record carefully, we cannot say that (Winmill’s) determination was ‘illogical, implausible or without support in the inferences that may be drawn from the record,’ ” Judge Marsha Berzon wrote. “As Judge (A. Wallace) Tashima’s partial dissent explains, the Morrises’ discrimination claim was neither robust nor unassailable.”

The ruling comes nearly eight years after the Morrises moved to West Hayden Estates north of Coeur d’Alene and held two Christmas shows that featured more than 200,000 lights and a camel.

The couple immediately got pushback even before moving to the neighborhood from its homeowners association, but the Morrises put on their show anyway in 2015. In 2016, they organized an even bigger show that included 48 volunteers and four “hot chocolate elves.”

After they said they received death threats, the Morrises sued the HOA in federal court on three legal grounds: that the association interfered with the practice of their faith, discouraged them from purchasing a home and selectively enforced the HOA rules.

A jury in 2018 sided with the Morrises on all three arguments and awarded them a total of $75,000 in damages. But in 2019, Winmill reversed that jury’s decision, while noting that it was rare for a judge to overrule a jury’s determination.

“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,” Winmill wrote.

Jeremy Morris, who said in 2022 that he was moving away from Hayden, appealed.

Although two of the three appellate judges dissented on parts of the case, the panel ultimately ruled that Winmill should not have overturned the jury’s decision on one of the legal arguments.

“The panel held that a reasonable jury could find that the HOA interfered with the Morrises’ right to purchase and enjoy their home free from discrimination,” Berzon wrote in part.

While the ruling technically frees Morris to seek yet another trial on that narrow claim, she noted that Morris’s testimony in the earlier case was problematic.

“So, on the one hand, Jeremy Morris’s testimony depicted the Christmas program as less disruptive than the documentary evidence demonstrated and painted the HOA as arbitrarily enforcing (rules) against him,” Berzon wrote. Winmill “had a basis in the record to conclude that that testimony was not credible.” On the other hand, the testimony of Jennifer Scott and the HOA’s other witnesses, the district court believed, was credible.

“That testimony supported the conclusion that the (HOA) board did not have a discriminatory motive for opposing the Christmas program.”

Efforts to reach Morris and Peter Smith, the Coeur d’Alene attorney who represented the HOA, were not immediately successful on Wednesday.