PORTLAND — A nonprofit group is suing the town of Rumford and others in federal court, stemming from a failed effort in seeking a rebate on its property tax bill in that town, claiming it was a religious charity.

Rumford Free Catholic Library filed a 35-page complaint last fall in federal court in Rhode Island, but the suit was transferred in February to U.S. District Court in Maine.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter in April, objecting to the transfer of the case to Maine, that “they regard said transfer as an example of judicial incompetence and a manifestation of a judicial power which federal district court judges do not possess.”

Defendants in the lawsuit include a host of public officials, a real estate agent and their former attorney. The plaintiffs sought to have the court appoint as their attorney a Rumford attorney whose license to practice law in Maine was suspended for three years in 2018.

Rumford Free Catholic Library is at 347 Pine St. Google Street View

In its complaint, the group said that in April 2014, it had bought a “partially run-down estate” in Rumford, had started to restore the property, established a food pantry service, offered Ignatian retreats and “when possible, Holy Mass.”

The group also established a “prayer and rosary ‘hotline’ and began to collect and collate thousands of books for the prospective children’s Catholic library it intended to create when time and resources permitted,” according to the lawsuit.

In 2014, the group sought to establish tax exempt status for its property at 347 Pine St.

The Rev. Philip M. Stark, one of the two plaintiff’s named in the case, lives in Cumberland, Rhode Island, according to the complaint; the other named plaintiff, Peter Francis Tinkham, lives in Easton, Massachusetts.

The group’s principal place of business is in Rumford, but the complaint says that it is a nonprofit charity doing business in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maine.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs say they and their mission were “the subject of a campaign of vicious and false slander and (were,) in the eyes of the town officials, to whom the application for exemption was directed, thoroughly discredited.”

In its complaint, the group said the town threatened in 2015 to sell the Pine Street property for nonpayment of two years of taxes. The plaintiffs wrote that they had never received a tax bill from the town from 2014-20.

In 2015, the group paid its back taxes, plus interest, and filed an appeal in state court, according to the complaint. The next year, the group again filed with the town for property tax exemption, the suit says.

In 2017, the Oxford County Superior Court ruled in favor of the group, finding it was a “bona fide” nonprofit, the complaint says.

“The superior court judge also opined that Maine law provides that no use of a charitable property is necessary for the first few years of ownership to qualify for tax exemption,” according to the complaint. The judge ordered the town to repay the group its earlier taxes with interest and not continue to bill the group for property taxes, the complaint says.

The town never repaid the group and in 2018, the group applied for a tax abatement, the complaint says. Local officials refused that request, concluding: “there was no use whatsoever made of the Rumford property by the RFCL since it took ownership in the spring of 2014; no evidence of religious or charitable mission activity at any time; and that, in addition, the property was run-down and derelict, unsuitable for any use,” according to the complaint.

The Board of Selectmen’s decision was appealed by the group to the Oxford County Board of Assessment Review, which found in favor of the group and ordered the town to repay the two years of taxes it had collected, plus interest, the complaint says. That decision was appealed to the Oxford County Superior Court, which referred the case back to the county board to determine whether the property had been in use in 2014-15, the complaint says.

That board found against the group after a hearing in 2019.

The group claimed in its federal complaint that the plaintiffs had been defamed by town elected officials and employees, as well as attorneys involved at some point in time with these legal matters.

When the group attempted to buy land on which to grow crops to give away, the land was quickly sold to another buyer and the group was slandered by the real estate agent, the complaint says.

“This vicious activity demonstrates the unshakeable intention the Defendant town employees have to prove that the RFCL is a religious imposter and sham,” the complaint says.

The plaintiffs claim violation of their U.S. constitutional rights, including due process, equal protection, state’s rights, and civil rights.
They are seeking an injunction barring the town from selling the property for nonpayment of taxes and to have the federal court take up the group’s appeal of the county board’s 2019 ruling against the group at a jury trial.

The town’s tax collector said Monday the group has not paid taxes on the property listed at 347 Pine St. in Rumford for fiscal year 2020. The town placed a lien on the property for the nonpayment of 2019 fiscal year property taxes.

Several defendants named in the suit have filed motions to dismiss, claiming, among other arguments, that the facts alleged pertain to the organization and not to the two people named as plaintiffs, the lawsuit fails to state a claim for which damages can be awarded, the defendants were not properly served with the complaint and the plaintiffs lack legal counsel.

In a motion filed in March, the group wrote that it wanted the court to appoint Seth Carey as its attorney: “The filthy campaign of defamation and character assassination that destroyed the plaintiff charity’s mission in the town of Rumford and the reputation of its officers and the filthy campaign of defamation and character assassination that destroyed this young attorney’s person and legal career were conducted by the very same public officials and officers of the court in the towns of Rumford and South Paris, Maine.”

Defendants in the suit countered that the court can only appoint an attorney who is in “good standing to practice, which renders attorney Carey ineligible” to serve as legal counsel to an indigent plaintiff.


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