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Couple Urges Ninth Circuit to Reinstate Jury Verdict Regarding Their Christmas Display

Night view of a Luxury Home with Christmas Lights in Brooklyn, New York, USA.
By Laura Temme, Esq. on October 16, 2019 1:19 PM

Idaho attorney Jeremy Morris put Clark Griswold to shame when he put over 200,000 Christmas lights on his home in 2015, despite warnings from his homeowners association that the display would lead to trouble. Or perhaps they were more concerned about the live camel and busloads of people visiting the neighborhood.

After throwing a wildly successful Christmas celebration in 2014 that lasted eight days and drew hundreds of visitors, Morris and his wife, Kristy, hoped they could throw a similar shindig at their new home in West Hayden Estates. However, their new neighborhood had rules against large displays and the noise that would accompany such festivities. Over the next four years, disputes between Morris and his HOA escalated to a lawsuit and counterclaim from West Hayden Estates - with a judicial plot twist added for good measure.

Tidings of Lawsuits and (Very Little) Joy

This is certainly not the first time a homeowners association has had misgivings about Christmas decorations. However, it seems West Hayden Estates got on the jury's bad side when a letter drafted regarding Morris's party referenced the "riff-raff" the event might attract. However, Morris's claims focused more on another line:

"[S]ome of our residents are non-Christians or of another faith, and I don't even want to think of the problems that could bring up."

Morris took this as an attack on his beliefs and demanded his home be de-annexed from the HOA or he would pursue legal action. And all of this was before he and his family even moved in. Despite serious push-back from neighbors, Morris moved in and held his Christmas Light Show in both 2015 and 2016.

In December 2018, a jury found West Hayden Estates had engaged in religious discrimination and awarded the Morris's $75,000 in damages.

But, Morris's victory was short-lived. In April 2019, Idaho District Judge B. Lynn Winmill granted West Hayden Estates' motion for judgment as a matter of law.

How The Judge Stole the Verdict

In what the court admitted was a rare move, Judge Winmill threw out the jury's verdict and replaced it with a $4 award (as well as an order to pay attorney's fees). Judge Winmill found that Morris had failed to set forth sufficient facts for a reasonable jury to find discriminatory intent. Rather, the court concluded that an ordinary reader of the association's letter would understand that the Board felt if they allowed the Christmas program to proceed, residents would feel the rules were being bent in favor of Christians.

"Though the letter was not drafted with lawyerly precision," the court held, the letter's contents alone were not enough to infer intentional discrimination. Finding there was no sufficient legal basis for the jury's decision, the court granted West Hayden Estates' Rule 50 motion.

Now, the Morris's have appealed to the Ninth Circuit for help. Will the court of appeals save Christmas? Does this version of Christmas need to be saved?

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