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Metropolitan AME Wins $1 Million in Damages Over Proud Boys’ Attack on Church

As widely reported in The Washington Post, The New York Times and dozens of other news outlets, Paul, Weiss obtained a landmark decision on behalf of Washington D.C.’s historic Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church when the D.C. Superior Court held that the governing body of the all-male extremist group the Proud Boys, along with Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio and members Joseph Biggs, Jeremy Bertino and John Turano, must pay over $1 million in compensatory and punitive damages for their roles in a violent attack on the church and the destruction of its Black Lives Matter sign in December 2020.

Metropolitan AME is an iconic and historic Black church that sits just blocks from the White House. It was formed in protest of the segregation of Black congregants in predominantly white churches. Its predecessor churches were stations on the Underground Railroad, and the church has a long history of speaking out for the rights of oppressed people. Its parishioners devoted to the struggle for equality have included Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks and Barack Obama. It celebrated its 185th anniversary on July 2.

The Proud Boys are a white supremacist group that has a penchant for violence. The group’s membership has doubled in the last few years, growing from 76 chapters in 2021 to more than 150 in 2022 with an estimated total membership of 22,000.

As part of their reign of terror, the Proud Boys targeted AME in a racist attack. On December 12, 2020 (just 3 weeks before the January 6, 2021, insurrection), more than 700 Proud Boys descended on D.C. for a “stop the steal” rally that they extended into a “night march” attacking Black churches, including Metropolitan AME, and destroying banners expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Paul, Weiss, joined by our partners the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, quickly came to the church’s aid.

In a novel use of two D.C. statutes permitting uncapped punitive damages, the complaint alleged that the group’s leaders violated the Bias Related Crimes Act and were liable for intentional damage or destruction of religious property under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, a law previously utilized to protect abortion clinics from damage by protestors. The complaint also alleged that the defendants violated the federal Ku Klux Klan Act by conspiring and agreeing to commit intentional unlawful acts in an effort to attack those who support racial justice, including the Black Lives Matter movement.

Based on the compelling evidentiary record that the Paul, Weiss team presented, the court issued a decision granting the church’s motion for a default judgment and describing the Proud Boys as violent racists, finding that “white supremacy is at the core of the Proud Boys,” and that “it is the Proud Boys’ white supremacist ideology that attracts the great majority of the group’s members.” The court additionally found that the attack on AME “resulted from a highly orchestrated set of events focused on the Proud Boys’ guiding principles: white supremacy and violence.” It held that “all of the defendants acted with an evil, discriminatory motive based on race,” and that “defendants’ unlawful conduct was reprehensible to an extreme degree.”

Although the economic harm inflicted on the church was low, the court found that the relatively modest “compensatory damages alone will not address the defendants’ reprehensible conduct or the extraordinary trauma suffered by the church and its congregants.” Accordingly, the court awarded $1 million in punitive damages—more than 27 times the amount of compensatory damages—and the fourth-highest amount ever awarded against white supremacists.

The Paul, Weiss team included litigation partners Daniel Kramer, Jeannie Rhee, Andrew Ehrlich and Erin Morgan, counsel Jonathan Hurwitz, ESG counsel Lissette Duran and litigation associates Samantha Fry, Jillian Gray, Clay Wild, Walter Bonné and Vamsi Damerla.

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