Editor's note: The above video is from 2015 when Jeremy Morris' Christmas light display first opened.
COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho -- A federal judge overturned the verdict in the ongoing saga over a homeowner's Christmas light display in Hayden, Idaho on April 4.
In October 2018, a jury ruled in favor of homeowner Jeremy Morris, who said that his family was embarrassed and ostracized by the West Hayden Homeowners Association.
Morris was awarded $60,000 in compensatory damages and $15,000 in punitive damages.
Morris' legal battle with the HOA started back in 2015 when he moved to his home with the intent to host an annual charity Christmas show with Santa Claus, carolers, and a live nativity scene featuring a live camel.
The HOA said the show would violate rules that concerned traffic, excessive noise, and brightness. The HOA threatened to sue Morris but eventually backed down and the Christmas show went on in 2016. In 2017, Morris decided not to put up lights.
U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill filed his decision to overturn the verdict on April 4. He granted the West Hayden HOA a new trial and ordered Morris to pay the homeowners association legal fees.
Winmill listed several reasons in his opinion about why the HOA is entitled to a new trial.
First, the judge said an ordinary reader would not interpret a letter sent by the HOA to Morris as discriminating on the basis of religion.
According to the judge’s decision, the letter read:
“I am somewhat hesitant in bringing up the fact that some of our residents are non-Christians or of another faith an I don’t even want to think of the problems that could bring up. It is not the intention of the Board to discourage you from becoming part of our great neighborhood but we do not wish to become entwined in expensive litigation to enforce long standing rules and regulations and fill our neighborhood with the hundreds of people and possible undesirables. We have worked hard to keep our area peaceful, quiet and clean. Neighbors respect the CC&R’s and show common courtesy to those around them. These are why people want to live here.”
Winmill said this letter shows it was not the board’s intent to discriminate against Morris based on his religion.
“Furthermore, the January 2015 letter’s use of the term ‘undesirables’ is an attempt to raise safety concerns associated with bringing a large number of unknown individuals to a normally quiet and calm area,” Winmill wrote.
The judge also found that the HOA was unfairly prejudiced by the admission of stricken evidence regarding threats from West Hayden homeowners to Morris and Christmas program attendees.
Winmill said Morris and his wife testified that neighbors had threatened to kill them. Morris had recorded some of these conversations. In one of the recordings, Morris said a homeowner told him, “he is gonna take care of me and that the people that showed up, the militia people or whatever the three percenters could not protect me.”
The judge wrote that the court determined the testimony be stricken as evidence because the HOA could not be held responsible for the actions of homeowners. Winmill wrote that the unfair prejudice by the Homeowners Association was compounded by the fact that the “death threats” were embellished. Documents said the statement “cannot be reasonably interpreted as a credible ‘death threats.’”
“The jury, despite the Court’s instructions, undoubtedly considered the threats made to the Plaintiffs and the Christmas program attendees in arriving at their verdict,” Winmill wrote in the decision.
Winmill ordered a new trial and that all of Morris’ awards be reduced to $1 for each of his claims. Morris will get $4 for all compensatory and punitive damages.
Morris is ordered to pay the HOA’s legal fees. The HOA has 10 days to submit a petition for fees and costs.
Morris posted on Facebook that he plans to appeal the decision.