Federal court ruling continues religious broadcaster’s family feud

Two “warring cousins” who each claim to be the rightful heir to the South Bend-based LeSEA Christian broadcasting network will continue to slug it out after a federal judge largely denied one cousin’s motion to dismiss. The order shed light on a family feud in the organization that bills itself the Family Broadcasting Corp.

LeSEA President and CEO Drew Sumrall followed in the footsteps of his father, Peter Sumrall, in running the nonprofit that, along with its religious TV and radio broadcasts, also includes churches, bookstores, World Harvest Bible College in South Bend, and food and disaster relief operations. Drew is the grandson of Lester Frank Sumrall, who founded LeSEA in 1957.

But after Peter Sumrall died in December 2015, another of the founder’s grandsons, Lester Sumrall, began what Drew and LeSEA characterize “as his ‘long pattern of abusive, harassing, and unlawful conduct’ against LeSEA and its interests ‘based on his false claim to be the rightful spiritual and legal heir to LeSEA,’” Judge Philip P. Simon wrote in an order issued Friday.

That pattern includes allegations that Simon recounts from LeSEA’s complaint. LeSEA alleges that days after Peter Sumrall died, Lester insisted on a LeSEA Broadcasting board meeting “for the purpose of naming him president of the organization and threatening legal action if it did not accede to his ‘bizarre demands,’” Simon wrote.

LeSEA also accuses Lester of meeting in New Orleans with the nonprofit’s principal lender to exert pressure to install him in a position of power after Lester failed to persuade the board to elevate him. “And when that didn’t work,” Simon wrote, “Lester Sumrall began a letter writing campaign demanding Drew Sumrall’s resignation and began spreading false allegations concerning LeSEA and its finances to LeSEA’s lenders and business associates.

“Lester didn’t stop there. He filed false liens, initiated and intervened in bad faith in state court litigation, in the name of the estate of his great uncle (the Rev. James H. Murphy) against LeSEA, Drew Sumrall, Peter Sumrall and others,” the judge wrote. “He likewise issued and paid for the distribution of press releases designed to spread false information concerning LeSEA and its management.

“When those efforts were not successful in obtaining control over the LeSEA organization, Lester Sumrall changed tactics and tried sowing confusion amongst the public by infringing on LeSEA’s name and trademarks. Lester Sumrall allegedly changed the name of a corporation he controlled from ‘Lester Sumrall International, Inc’ to ‘LeSEA Broadcasting Corporation,’ obviously a name similar to LeSEA and one of its lines of business,” Simon wrote. “He further filed five certificates of assumed business names with the Indiana secretary of state which likewise use the name LeSEA in some fashion.”

Lester Sumrall has filed a counterclaim that was not at issue in Simon’s Friday order. In it, Lester asserts, among other things, that he is the true heir as trustee of the Lester Sumrall Family Trust, and that his grandfather signed a succession plan before his death in 1996 “naming his eldest grandson and namesake Lester to be President” of LeSEA.

His counterclaim accuses Drew and the current LeSEA administration of copyright infringement and violation of Indiana’s Right of Publicity statute for allegedly unauthorized use of his grandfather’s image in the rebroadcast of his sermons and programs. Lester also asserts claims of conversion, unjust enrichment, theft, fraud and other counts in his counterclaim.

Lester charges the alleged improper use of his grandfather’s image by the current LeSEA operators “contributed to revenue and donations in excess of ($1 billion) during the period of fraudulent concealment… .”

In his order Friday, Simon dismissed LeSEA’s deception, forgery and counterfeiting claims against Lester without prejudice, granting express leave for those counts to be amended. Simon also rejected Lester’s motion to strike portions of the complaint outlining the steps he allegedly took to attempt to assert control of the religious broadcaster.

“According to Lester Sumrall, this case is primarily about LeSEA’s legal interest and ownership of certain trademarks and nothing more. But a fair reading of the Amended Complaint makes it plain that it’s about more than just that. … (T)here are live claims in this case relating to tortious interference contract, theft, conversion, and criminal mischief,” Simon wrote. “Those claims require an element of wrongful conduct and the allegations contained within paragraphs 24-42 of the Amended Complaint help to tell that story and provide the basis for alleging tortious conduct at this initial stage of the lawsuit.

“At bottom, (Lester) might not like what LeSEA’s complaint says, but he cannot say they are irrelevant as a matter of law. (Lester) further says that if these allegations remain in the lawsuit, he’ll have to answer them and tell his own version of the same events, but that is precisely what is expected in civil litigation. And it seems he has done so by filing a twelve-count counterclaim and third-party complaint.”

Simon’s order declined to dismiss LeSEA’s complaints against Lester of conversion, theft, criminal mischief and tortious interference with contractual and business relationships.

According to LeSEA’s website, Family Broadcasting Corp. is carried in Indianapolis on WHMB-TV and in South Bend on WHME-TV as well as broadcast affiliates in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Honolulu, Hawaii, and St. Croix, Virgin Islands. It also owns the World Harvest DirecTV channel and other television and radio operations.

The case is LeSEA Inc., et al. v. LeSEA Broadcasting Corporation, et al., 3:18-cv-00914.    

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