August 14, 2019 - On Sri Balaram Jayanti Mahotsava (the Appearance Day of Lord Balaram), ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission (“GBC”) and the Board of Directors of Bharati Center, Inc. (“Brooklyn Temple” or “Temple") won a notable victory in the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court (“Appellate Court”).
A four-judge panel of the Appellate Court denied a motion brought by the Temple’s former directors (“Former Directors”) for a preliminary injunction prohibiting the Temple’s current directors and officers from undertaking “any conduct . . . outside the ordinary course of business,” including the eviction of residents, the sale of real property and a merger or consolidation. (1)
The Former Directors evidently failed to convince the Appellate Court that they were likely to succeed on the merits of their claims; that they were likely to suffer “irreparable harm” without preliminary relief; and that the balance of equities between the parties supported a preliminary injunction.
The above-described developments took place just weeks before the Former Directors’ long-expected filing of a “perfected appeal” (2) from the hugely consequential decision of October 2018 by Justice Jimenez-Salta of the New York State Supreme Court for Kings County. (3) In that decision, the Court deferred to the GBC, as ISKCON’s ultimate managing authority, to remove and replace directors and officers who violate the teachings of ISKCON Founder-Acharya HDG A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, ISKCON laws and GBC resolutions.
The Appellate Court’s denial of the Former Directors’ motion for an injunction is the latest development in a long-running legal dispute arising from the attempted sale of the Brooklyn Temple by the Former Directors to a New York real estate developer without the approval of the GBC or the Temple congregation.
For readers unfamiliar with this dispute, the following summary will hopefully add useful context to the Appellate Court’s recent decision.
Attempted Sale of the Brooklyn Temple
In 2016, the GBC became aware of the Former Directors’ petition to the New York State Office of the Attorney General (“OAG”) and a subsequent filing in the New York State Supreme Court for Kings County, seeking approval of a proposed sale of the Brooklyn Temple to a local real estate developer for the sum of $58,800,000.(4) At the time, the Temple was managed by David Britten (Ramabhadra Das) and and his wife Heather (Satya Dasi). For a number of years, the Brittens served as the Brooklyn Temple’s leading directors and sole officers.
The Brittens’ petition to the Court was opposed by the GBC, the Temple's congregation and the OAG. In its Decision of April 2018, the Court refused to approve the Temple sale over the GBC’s objection. (5)
Change of Temple Management
Back in 2017 the GBC notified the Brittens and other board members who had attempted to sell the Brooklyn Temple that they had been removed and a new team of directors installed to take their place. Immediately thereafter, the Brittens removed the large sign adorning the temple façade containing the words "ISKCON" and “Founder-Acharya: His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.” in a failed attempt to disaffiliate the Brooklyn Temple from ISKCON.
GBC Lawsuit Against the Former Directors of Bharati Center Inc.
In December 2017, the GBC and the Temple's new board members sued the Former Directors led by the Britten husband-and-wife team to obtain an order declaring that the GBC has ultimate oversight authority over the Brooklyn Temple.
In Governing Body of ISKCON v. David Britten et al., Index No. 524895/2017 (Sup. Ct. Kings County 2018), Justice Jimenez-Salta issued a series of detailed orders in favor of the GBC and the new Board of Directors of the Brooklyn Temple:
• The Former Directors are permanently enjoined from interfering with any congregant of the Brooklyn Temple in attending services and/or worshiping at the Temple.
• The GBC acted within its authority when it removed the Former Directors and installed the new Board of Directors of Bharati Center Inc.
• The Former Directors are enjoined from attempting to sell the Temple.
• The Former Directors are “permanently enjoined from interfering with the current directors' oversight and supervision of the operation of the [Brooklyn Temple].
• The Former Directors are permanently enjoined from holding themselves out or acting as officers, directors, or representatives of the Brooklyn Temple.
• The Former Directors are permanently enjoined from acting as a signatories on Temple accounts.
• The Former Directors must turn over the books and records of the Brooklyn Temple and give a complete accounting of the Temple’s income and expenditures from January 2014, including a full disclosure of financial records related to the Temple altar, gift shop, bank accounts, and Govinda’s soup kitchen.
The Court’s rulings were in the form of “summary judgment,” which is granted only when all material facts are undisputed, thereby making it possible for the Court to render its decision without holding a trial.
Brittens’ Appeal to the Appellate Court
After the lower court ruled in favor of the GBC, the Former Directors filed an appeal to the Appellate Court arguing primarily that Justice Jimenez-Salta erred when she ruled on summary judgment and decided not to conduct a full-blown trial or consider some allegedly "pertinent evidence."
Immediate Impact of the Appellate Court’s Denial of the Injunction
When the Appellate Court denied the Former Directors’ motion for an injunction staying all evictions from the Brooklyn Temple, a single eviction proceeding was pending before the Kings County Housing Court. Ever since December 2018, when Mr. Krishna Benny, a Britten acolyte and Temple resident was arrested by the NYPD for grand larceny against the Temple, the Board of Directors had been seeking Mr. Benny's eviction. (6) Mr. Benny’s principal argument against eviction was that it could not take place as long as the temporary restraining order or injunction of the Appellate Court was in effect. With the denial of the injunction and the resulting dissolution of the temporary restraining order, Mr. Benny consented to an entry of final judgment of possession and the issuance of warrant of eviction for him to vacate and surrender his living quarters in the Temple.
Future of the Former Directors’ Appeal
Defendants-Appellants Former Directors are under a court order to file their perfected appeal from Justice Jimenez-Salta’s decision dated October 29, 2018 no later than September 5, 2019. Plaintiffs-Respondents GBC and the Brooklyn Temple Board of Directors will then have 30 days to file opposition papers. The Former Directors will then have a final right of reply.
Thereafter, it's anybody's guess how long it will take for the parties to be called to oral argument, after which the wait for the Appellate Court’s decision begins in earnest. In the meantime, the devotees will continue performing their devotional service to Sri Sri Radha-Govinda in the Brooklyn Temple and spread Lord Chaitanya’s sankirtan movement all over New York City.
(1) On June 21, 2019 Judge Mark C. Dillon of the Appellate Court issued a temporary restraining order (“TRO”) against the GBC and the Brooklyn Temple Board of Directors prohibiting “any conduct . . . outside the ordinary course of business,” including the eviction of residents, the sale of real property and a merger or consolidation. A TRO is intended to be “stop-gap measure” and lasts only until the Court holds a hearing, in the present case on submission of papers, on whether or not to issue a preliminary injunction.
(2) After an appeal is taken by filing a notice of appeal, it must be “perfected.” There are several different methods by which an appeal may be perfected, all of which are described in § 1250.5 of the Practice Rules of the Appellate Division (22 NYCRR 1250.5) and in chapter 5 of the Court's Guide to Civil Practice.
(4) Under New York law, the sale of real property of a non-profit religious corporation requires OAG or Court approval.
(6) Upon information and belief, Mr. Benny’s arrest subsequently resulted in a “deferred prosecution.”