Battlefield Norcross

How Rebecca Franklin and Jeff Harris helped close a drug treatment center

Published in 2014 Georgia Super Lawyers — March 2014

When Patrick Desmond was court-ordered to undergo residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation in 2007, his parents went online and found Narconon of Georgia Inc. in Norcross. That September, a drug court administrator, after inquiring about Narconon’s licensing, counseling and training, approved his enrollment there.

Within a year, Desmond suffered cardiopulmonary arrest after overdosing on a combination of heroin and alcohol. He died on June 11, 2008.

“What was happening at Narconon was a tragedy,” says Jeff Harris, a founding partner at Harris Penn Lowry, who, with Rebecca Franklin, sued Narconon on behalf of the Desmonds.

Licensed as an outpatient facility, Narconon illegally ran a resident housing complex nearby, where Desmond stayed. He was permitted to graduate from treatment six weeks short of his court order and became a staff member the remainder of the time. After returning home, he didn’t take a required alcohol test, admitted he had relapsed and agreed to go back to Narconon in May 2008. The night of June 10, he was allowed to drink beer and vodka with Narconon staff members, then left to purchase heroin with staff members’ knowledge.

Getting to the bottom of what was going on at Narconon wasn’t easy. “It was probably one of the most contentious discovery cases we’ve been involved in,” says Harris.

“The training materials had terminology that we had never heard,” adds Franklin, founder of Franklin Law.

“It was essentially Scientology,” says Harris. “Ultimately the Narconon program—I don’t care what they say—is based on Scientology.” The facility’s side, including its former executive director, has repeatedly denied an affiliation with the church, but Harris and Franklin found an internal document that stated, he says, “that the Church of Scientology, [through an entity] that was called the OSA, which was their version of the CIA, was being copied on things that were happening at Narconon of Georgia.”

The bottom line, Harris says, was this: “What we have here is not a drug and alcohol rehab facility; it’s essentially a tool that the church uses to recruit people.”

In February 2012, the weekend before the Desmond trial was set to start, the case settled for an undisclosed amount.

“I believe that there were a lot of things going on at Narconon that we both would have liked to be told publicly,” says Harris. “But at the end of the day, the case was resolved appropriately for our clients.”

After the settlement, Harris and Franklin’s research contributed to investigations by media sources and state authorities. Phone calls poured in from other families, detailing their own experiences with Narconon. Allegations against the facility included credit card fraud, false marketing and business practices, civil racketeering and breach of contract.

“It wasn’t surprising,” says Franklin. “During the Desmond case, we talked to so many people that said they had the same experience with Narconon.”

As a result, last June, Franklin and Harris—who have worked together since 2005, been domestic partners since 2007 and became engaged last November—filed a class action complaint against Narconon of Georgia and its affiliated organizations. A few months later, in an agreement with the local district attorney’s office and the state Office of the Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner, Narconon of Georgia surrendered its license to operate.

The class-action complaint scrutinizes Narconon’s business and marketing practices, and alleges that its “New Life Detoxification Program,” which includes sweating in a sauna and taking nutritional supplements, is identical to Scientology’s “Purification Rundown,” a requirement in Scientology training.

The class action, at press time, is awaiting certification.

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