Editor’s Note: This week, Atticus Review unveils the story of the unauthorized taking of Portland’s Mt. Zion Baptist Church with three articles: “Swindled Church Nets White Baptists Big Bucks” (Part 1), “Troy Smith to the Rescue?” (Part 2) and Plundering the Corpse (Part 3), plus two sidebars: “Recompense for the Dispossessed?” (Part 4), and “A Success Story with Stealth Issues of its Own” (Part 5). Today, investigative reporter Daniel Forbes explores whether there is any hope for legal recourse for the Mt. Zion congregation, while tomorrow the series wraps up with a parting look at the property’s current tenant, Door of Hope.

Recompense for the Dispossessed?

PORTLAND, OREGON — There’s a group of aging African-American Christians scattered around Portland and its environs bitter about the loss of their church, bitter about the hard work lost and the sudden cessation of what former Mt. Zion member Dee Baker called the “richest religious experience” of her life. Bitter that white folks ferried their church to an affiliate of an enormous, wealthy, largely white denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention.

It’s probably beyond this dispersed group to unite again in prayer under one roof. Will Warren, their last sitting pastor, clearly has little stomach for strapping on the harness again. But the question remains: might they seek compensation for their loss through a quiet title action or some other legal remedy?

There are grounds to pursue a case. Referring to the property’s recipient, the Interstate Baptist Association, Brooks M. Foster, a shareholder with the Chenoweth Law Group PC, said,  “At minimum, the grantee should have had some doubts. It was not reasonable for the grantee to rely on the conveyance without more certainty about the signatories’ authority to legally transfer the deed. Therefore there was no apparent authority.”

There also was no after-the-fact ratification by the church that the property had been transferred. Members kept repaying a furnace loan to an SBC affiliate and spent $1,800 on security. They even applied for a $45,000 loan to fix a leaky roof and attendant water damage. All for a building they no longer owned, unbeknownst to them.

Given this fact-set, Stephen R. Ledoux, a partner with Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, said that “any church member has standing to file a quiet title action.”

Attorney Brooks M. Foster

Attorney Brooks M. Foster

Foster, however, wasn’t  entirely sure that all members would have standing. And even if they proved standing, he wrote in an email, they still would have “no claim to being the rightful owner of the property…. I would expect the law to require the church to be the claimant so that reversal of the conveyance could return title to the church.”

Foster noted that as an entity, Mt. Zion might re-register with the Secretary of State or reactivate its old, lapsed registration. “There are circumstances in which an entity can be revived after being dissolved, especially when it is necessary to resolve a legal dispute.”

That raises the issue of whether the ten-year statute of limitations has run out on any quiet title action. Arguably, the clock doesn’t start running until after Mt. Zion quit the property. And the church files indicate that as late as January 2007, it made a quarterly property and liability insurance payment of $859 to GuideOne Insurance.

A real stumbling block to any legal action, Foster said by email, is that the church was allowed to dissolve with no challenge to the conveyance. “I would consider this a very bad fact for any quiet title action.” It suggests, Foster said, that any claim may have been waived or ratified after-the-fact. “If there was a waiver or ratification, the conveyance would be upheld even if the people who signed the deed did not have the authority to do so when they did.” He added, “[T]he passage of time and the dissolution of the church entity are bad facts that create obstacles to any legal challenge.”

Another avenue to some sort of justice, if not necessarily compensation, would be an investigation by the office of Oregon State Attorney General Ellen F. Rosenblum. As Monday’s article mentions, Rosenblum’s office stated the conveyance violated state law regarding the requirement to file notice of the deal with the AG.

Ledoux notes that while the AG, with her office’s limited resources, must decide whether to pursue any given investigation, she may be motivated to pursue the Mt. Zion case so as to serve notice to other non-profits on the need to file notice.

Linda Golaszewski, an expert in non-profit management at Portland State University, points out that any former church member is entitled to ask Rosenblum to conduct an investigation.

Bottom line, said Foster, “It’s likely that a judge or jury will have to conduct fact-finding about the lack of apparent authority to convey the church.”

Photo: Coventry Cathedral by Sarah Joy