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Puri v. Khalsa

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

April 26, 2018

BIBIJI INDERJIT KAUR PURI; RANBIR SINGH BHAI; KAMALJIT KAUR KOHLI; KULBIR SINGH PURI, Plaintiffs,
v.
SOPURKH KAUR KHALSA; PERAIM KAUR KHALSA; SIRI RAM KAUR KHALSA; KARTAR SINGH KHALSA; KARAM SINGH KHALSA; SIRI KARM KAUR KHALSA; ROY LAMBERT; SCHWABE, WILLIAMSON & WYATT, an Oregon Professional Corporation; LEWIS M. HOROWITZ; LANE POWELL PC, an Oregon Professional Corporation; UNTO INFINITY, LLC, an Oregon Limited Liability Company; SIRI SINGH SAHIB CORPORATION, an Oregon non-profit corporation; GURUDHAN SINGH KHALSA; GURU HARI SINGH KHALSA; AJEET SINGH KHALSA; EWTC MANAGEMENT, LLC; DOES, 1-5, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          MICHAEL W. MOSMAN, Chief United States District Judge

         This matter comes before me on Plaintiffs' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment [389] and Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment [390]. The parties also filed several motions to strike. [418, 424, 428]. For the reasons below, I GRANT Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment [390], DENY Plaintiffs' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment [389], and DENY or DENY as moot the parties' Motions to Strike [418, 424, 428].

         BACKGROUND

         I. Factual Background

         This dispute revolves around the now deceased Siri Singh Sahib Bhai Sahib Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji, aka Yogi Bhajan. Yogi Bhajan was a Sikh Dharma spiritual leader who helped promulgate the Sikh religion and Kundalini Yoga in the United States until his death in 2004. In 1971, Yogi Bhajan became "Siri Singh Sahib, " or the Chief Religious and Administrative Authority for the Ordained Ministry of Sikh Dharma in the Western Hemisphere. Gurujot Decl. [396], ¶¶ 6, 8. Pursuant to his role as Siri Singh Sahib, Yogi Bhajan established numerous non-profit organizations and for-profit businesses. This case involves three of these organizations: Sikh Dharma International (SDI), Siri Singh Sahib Corporation (SSSC), and Unto Infinity, LLC (UI).

         The Plaintiffs in this case are Bibiji Inderjit Kaur Puri, Ranbir Singh Bhai, Kamaljit Kaur Kohli, and Kulbir Singh Puri, the widow and three children of Yogi Bhajan.[1] The Defendants remaining in this case are UI, SSSC, Sopurkh Kaur Khalsa, the President and a member of the UI Board of Managers and a member of the SSSC Board of Trustees, and Kartar Singh Khalsa, a member of the UI and SSSC boards. Plaintiffs allege in the operative Second Amended Complaint (SAC) that after Yogi Bhajan's death on October 6, 2004, the individual Defendants conspired to exclude them from management of UI and SSSC. SAC [234] ¶¶ 24-29. They seek declaratory relief placing them on the boards and monetary damages.

         A. SDI

         SDI is a California nonprofit religious corporation. Gurujot Decl. [396], ¶ 13; id. Ex. 1. It is undisputed that SDI is a religious organization. SDI, which was originally named Sikh Dharma Brotherhood, was formed in 1973 for the following primary purposes:

[T]o operate for the advancement of education, science and religion and for charitable purposes by the distribution of its funds for such purposes by operating as a religious organization and as association of religious organizations, by teaching the principles of the Sikh Dharma, or way of life, in the Western Hemisphere and including, but not limited to, the creation and operation of places of worship, the ordination of ministers of divinity, the creation and operation of educational centers and associated and supportive activities related to these primary purposes.

         Gurujot Decl. [396], Ex. 1 (SDI Articles of Incorporation). SDFs 2003 Bylaws, which were in effect at the time of the events underlying this case, stated:

[SDI] is organized and shall be operated exclusively for the purposes of operating as a religious organization and as an association of religious organizations by teaching the principles of the Sikh Dharma, or way of life; by creation and operation of places of worship; by ordination of ministers of divinity; by creation and operation of educational centers; and by the conduct of associated and supportive activities related to these purposes; and to do all things necessary, expedient or appropriate to the accomplishment of the purposes for which this corporation is formed.

See Gurujot Decl. [396], Ex. 9 at 1. And SDI receives a tax exemption as "a church or a convention or association of churches" under 26 U.S.C. § 501(c)(3) and § l7O(b)(1)(A)(i). Gurujot Decl. [396], Ex. 4.

         Prior to Yogi Bhajan's death, there were two individual religious positions in SDI: the Siri Singh Sahib and the Bhai Sahiba. Yogi Bhajan, in his role as Siri Singh Sahib, served as the chief religious authority of SDI, and the Bhai Sahiba "over[saw] religious protocol." Gurojodha Decl. [395], Ex. 3 at 31. Following Yogi Bhajan's death, the "Siri Sikdar Sahib/a and the Bhai Sahib or Bhai Sahiba [are] together ... the chief authority on the teachings of Siri Singh Sahib Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji on the practice of Sikh Dharma." Gurojot Decl. [396], Ex. 9 at 10. The Bhai Sahiba advises SDI, the Khalsa Council, and UI on religious matters. Gurojot Decl. [396], Ex. 9 at 13. The Siri Sikdar Sahib/a "shall champion the spiritual and secular education of the children of Sikh Dharma" and "shall devote time daily for meditation and prayer on behalf of the congregations of Sikh Dharma, shall be responsible through the office of the Bhai Sahib/a for maintaining and improving the quality of spiritual practice in Western hemisphere communities and for inspiring and promoting devotion to Shabd Guru." Gurojot Decl. [396], Ex. 9 at 12. Additionally, the 2003 SDI Bylaws call for the Siri Sikdar Sahib/a to lead annual pilgrimages and perform outreach to other Sikh religious leaders. Gurojot Decl. [396], Ex. 9 at 12.

         SDI's bylaws also outlined several governing boards, including an advisory board of SDI ministers called the Khalsa Council, which advises UI "on matters of significance" to SDI, and a board of directors called the Khalsa Council Adh Kari. Gurojot Decl. [396], Ex. 9 at 8.

         B. SSSC

         SSSC is an Oregon nonprofit religious corporation formed in 1997 "to take over the leadership function of [Yogi Bhajan] after his death." Gurojodha Decl. [395], Ex. 3 at 30. SSSC's purposes include overseeing the "administration and program services" of SDI and "conducting] and/or facilitat[ing] religious, charitable, and educational activities." Gurojodha Decl. [395], Ex. 3 at 17, 20; Soni Decl. [394], Ex. C, Art. VI. Like SDI, SSSC receives a tax exemption as "a church or a convention or association of churches." Gurojodha Decl. [395], Ex. 3 at 2, 25.

         During his lifetime, Yogi Bhajan was the sole director of SSSC. Soni Decl. [394], Ex. B (SSSC Articles of Incorporation), at 3. Following his death, a board of trustees/directors was to govern SSSC. According to the original SSSC Articles of Incorporation, following Yogi Bhajan's death or incapacity, "the directors shall be those persons designated in writing by [Yogi Bhajan]. The written designation; and any amendment, or supplement to it, shall be dated upon execution and shall be delivered to, and held in confidence by the attorney for the corporation and Sikh Dharma designated in the corporation's Bylaws." Soni Decl. [394], Ex. B at 3. The original SSSC Bylaws designated Roy Lambert (who was a Defendant in this case until Plaintiffs settled their claims against him) as the attorney for SSSC. Soni Decl. [394], Ex. C, Art. VI. These disputed designations that are at the core of Plaintiff s claims in this case.

         The Bylaws also outline certain job duties for the trustees:

A trustee shall perform his or her duties as a trustee including his or her duties as a member of any committee of the board upon which the trustee may serve, in good faith, in a manner the trustee believes to be in or not opposed to the best interests of the corporation and with such care as an ordinarily prudent person would use under similar circumstances in a like position.

Soni Decl. [394], Ex. C, Art. 2 (Bylaws). The SSSC Articles outline an additional job duty for the board: the Articles state that Yogi Bhajan would designate an individual to succeed to the office of Siri Sikdar Sahib/a, who would also serve as a director of the SSSC board. Soni Decl. [394], Ex. B at 4. But if Yogi Bhajan failed to designate such an individual, the SSSC board was to choose a new Siri Sikdar Sahib/a, with the advice of the Khalsa Council. Soni Decl. [394], Ex. Bat 4-5.

         Additionally, later amended versions of the Articles of Restatement of SSSC and the Restated Articles of Incorporation required that SSSC board members be qualified as ministers of Sikh Dharma and live "in a manner consistent with the teachings and values of [Yogi Bhajan]." Soni Decl. [394], Ex. E. Although some of these documents were dated October 1-3, 2004, prior to Yogi Bhajan's death, it appears that the documents were actually created in November 2004, after his death. Soni Decl. [394], Ex. DD.

         After Yogi Bhajan's death and the subsequent 2012 settlement agreement, SSSC's role within the Sikh Dharma hierarchy changed. The current SSSC board "has the authority to appoint and remove the board members of Sikh Dharma International (SDI), which, among other things, contains the Sikh Dharma Ministry and, through the Ministry, carries out the function of ordaining Sikh Ministers." Gurojodha Deck [395] ¶ 28. The current mission statement of SSSC[2] reads:

With the guidance of God and the grace of the Guru it is the mission of the SSSC to protect, preserve and cultivate the prosperity of the constituent community and its assets; listen to, serve and elevate the constituent community; support the nonprofit and for profit entities and the family of constituent communities; and live to and hold the values of the teachings of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib and the Siri Singh Sahib Bhai Sahib Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogi Ji: selfless service, compassion, kindness, honesty, integrity, trustworthiness and Guru inspired consciousness.

Gurojodha Deck [395] ¶ 25. The current president of the SSSC board stated that board members "act as representatives and ambassadors of Sikh Dharma. SSSC Board members, myself included, regularly participate in outreach, interfaith, mission building, and Sikh awareness events." Gurojodha Deck [395] ¶ 39. Finally, the SSSC board president describes the current election process for SSSC as following:

For the 2012, 2015, and 2017 SSSC Board elections, the elected SSSC Board members were elected by fellow Sikh Dharma ministers, active Khalsa Council members, and members of the Sikh Dharma community pursuant to the terms of the SSSC Board Election Policy. For future elections, and pursuant to a change in the SSSC Board Election Policy, only Sikh Dharma ministers who are in good standing will be eligible to vote for SSSC Board members.

Gurojodha Deck [395] ¶ 16.

         C. UI

         Following the death of Yogi Bhajan, SSSC became the sole member of UI, an Oregon nonprofit LLC formed in 2003. UI was the sole member of SDI until 2012, when SSSC assumed this role.[3] Gurujot Decl. [396], ¶ 13; id. Ex. 3. Former attorney for Defendants (and former Defendant) Roy Lambert testified that UI was intended to be the "ultimate decision-maker with respect to the .. . [Yogi Bhajan] community" after Yogi Bhajan's death, because Yogi Bhajan felt that the board of SSSC was too large. Soni Decl. [394], Exh. WW at 138. To this end, Yogi Bhajan issued a proclamation on June 30, 2004 stating:

I hereby proclaim that Unto Infinity, LLC, is the entity authorized by me to continue to exercise the administrative authority of the office of the Siri Singh Sahib of Sikh Dharma, once I no longer occupy that office, in all those cases where authorization by the Siri Singh Sahib is required in the articles, ...

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