A US court has dismissed a defamation suit filed by a bishop of Lighthouse Chapel International against a former employee of the charismatic church, Jerry Tachie-Menson.
The Texas court threw out the case on technical grounds, explaining the plaintiff, Bishop Ishmael Sam, had failed to adequately invoke the jurisdiction of the court.
Bishop Sam started branches of the Lighthouse in Tema and is now the resident bishop of the Truth Cathedral in Dawenya, Accra.
Jerry Tachie-Menson was a choir director at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) where he graduated with BSc. Computer Science. He was recruited into the Lighthouse Chapel International’s music and audio-visual ministry in 2003.
He was a multimedia editor, helping broadcast Dag Heward-Mills’ video messages in the UK and South Africa and recordings on Sunny FM in Accra. He was also his personal music assistant and the church’s data analyst. Jerry was a pioneer in the church’s Healing Jesus Crusade.
He said he quit the church in 2009 after he felt he was being asked to choose between his sick mother and the church. Jerry moved from Ghana to join his family in Texas. He has since become an American citizen. He has been waging a campaign on Facebook, pointing out malpractices in the church and what he says are errors in the church’s doctrine.
Between August 3, 2021, and August 5, 2021, Jerry made a series of posts on Facebook alleging that Bishop Sam had “colluded to demote, degrade and oust one of the longest-serving loyal sons of your boss after 28 years of faithful service.”
Jerry was referring to Bishop Johnny Awanyo, who left Lighthouse in 2021.
Jerry continued, “YOU, Mr. Sam, are the reason why one of my dear friends attempted suicide thrice because you LIED against him. The wave of Tema pastors who left UD will also have A LOT to say about your wickedness!!”
He gave the name of the suicidal pastor as Nana Yaw Baffoe-Bonnie. Bishop Sam claimed in his suit that Nana Yaw Baffoe-Bonnie later apologised to him.
Court documents available to The Fourth Estate show that on the same day of Jerry’s post, Bishop Sam posted a vow on Facebook, “I will not sit down for you to denigrate my father, Bishop Dag Heward-Mills…”
On October 12, 2021, Bishop Sam filed a lawsuit at the US Southern District Court of Texas, claiming Jerry had defamed him on a social media platform that has a reach of at least 4,000 friends and followers.
He hired a US lawyer, Byron Buchanan, who in his suit said Jerry’s Facebook posts had exposed his client to “public hatred, contempt, and ridicule” and had “caused significant reputational damage and harm.”
The LCI bishop quantified the monetary effects of Jerry’s conduct to be in excess of $75,000 (GH¢472,500).
Challenging the suit, Jerry Tachie-Menson filed a motion asking the US federal court to dismiss the case for “lack of diversity and subject matter jurisdiction.”
In the United States, there are laws that grant federal courts the power to hear lawsuits that do not involve constitutional questions or matters.
One of these powers is what is termed as diversity jurisdiction. It is used when the parties to the case have different citizenship. Jerry is a citizen of Texas while Bishop Sam resides in Ghana. Bishop Sam’s suit against Jerry Tachie-Menson met this criterion.
However, a second criterion needed to be met for the federal court to be empowered to hear the lawsuit. It is that the amount at stake in the lawsuit should be excess of $75,000.
When Bishop Sam claimed he had suffered to the tune of more than $75,000 he was making a case that indeed he had met the terms of invoking the Texas federal court’s jurisdiction.
But US law required him to prove emphatically that Jerry’s social media posts about him had defamed him at the value of that amount.
US magistrate judge, Andrew Edison, who examined the lawsuit, explained in his judgment, “It is the responsibility of the party invoking jurisdiction to prove by a preponderance of evidence that the amount in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional amount.”
Testing this requirement to Bishop Sam’s lawsuit, the judge explained copiously that the LCI minister’s lawsuit was found wanting in evidence and facts.
“Despite being given the opportunity to present summary judgment-type evidence, Bishop Sam has not offered any evidence corroborating his jurisdictional allegations. As a result, the record is devoid of any evidence…,” the judge said.
“Bishop Sam leads no facts describing the alleged harm he has experienced, other than using generalised labels that fail to explain how and to what extent he has been damaged,” he went on.
He continued, “Bishop Sam has failed to do so, I conclude that subject matter jurisdiction is lacking. This case should, therefore, be dismissed,” Judge Andrew Edison signed off on January 3, 2022.
The ruling said Bishop Sam had 14 days to file a written objection. “Failure to file written objections within the time period mentioned shall bar an aggrieved party from attacking the factual findings and legal conclusions on appeal,” judge Edison added.
The 14 days elapsed on January 17, 2022.
In the US legal system, this judgment given by the magistrate judge is only a recommendation. For it to become a final judgment, it needs the approval of a district judge.
On January 21, 2022, US District judge, George Hanks Jr, approved the recommended judgment as “the final judgment.”
He ruled, “Pursuant to the Court’s order dismissing all claims by Plaintiff Bishop Ishmael Sam in the above-captioned subject…the court enters FINAL JUDGMENT dismissing this action with prejudice. All reliefs not expressed granted is DENIED.”
Lighthouse Chapel International and its tussle with former employees have become a subject of public interest after The Fourth Estate published accounts of former pastors and bishops who have accused the church of economic exploitation, emotional abuse and trauma.
The six former pastors have sued the church, which was founded by Dag Heward-Mills. Since the publication of the story and the suit against the church, Lighthouse has been fighting off criticism, some coming from former employees and church workers.
The church has issued four suits against The Fourth Estate and counter-sued the six pastors for defamation.