FORT WORTH, Texas — Sybil Joy Ehninger High, a 49-year-old former home renovator, was unhappy that the judges didn’t see her side in a foreclosure dispute. She went to a rural California man with no professional qualifications who handed her a $2.9 million “arbitration award,” court records show.
Losing her home was bad enough, but Ehninger High’s problems got a lot worse when she tried to register that award against the two Tarrant County judges in a Fort Worth federal court. The Tarrant County district attorney’s office said the “sham” arbitration award was intended to harass the judges and amounted to fraud. U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor had her hauled into his courtroom to answer questions.
He also ordered the alleged arbiter, Bob Dale Presley Jr., to show up and explain himself. When Presley ignored his order, O’Connor had him arrested and locked up for more than four months for contempt.
Assistant Criminal District Attorney Melvin Keith Ogle, who represented the judges, said in court filings that Ehninger High and Presley are apparent followers of the sovereign citizen movement.
Sovereign citizens believe that they — not judges, juries, law enforcement or elected officials — should decide which laws to obey and which to ignore, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Most sovereign citizens also don’t believe they should have to pay taxes. They clog up the courts with indecipherable filings and, when cornered, many of them lash out, retaliating through acts of paper terrorism and, in the most extreme cases, acts of deadly violence — usually directed against government officials. In May 2010, for example, a father-son team of sovereigns murdered two police officers with an assault rifle when they were pulled over on the interstate while traveling through West Memphis, Ark.
This “paper terrorism” from sovereign citizen extremists, experts say, is becoming a serious burden for state and federal courts. The FBI considers sovereign citizens to be anti-government extremists and their prolific and nonsensical court filings a form of domestic terrorism. Experts say the movement, with its false promises of escaping debt, could grow in the coming months by appealing to those struggling financially from an economy crippled by the coronavirus pandemic.
Lenders have said in recent court filings across the U.S. that similar cases of fraudulent arbitration awards are on the rise and spreading fast, as people use them to try to avoid foreclosure and debt. One mortgage bank is suing Presley in federal court in California for racketeering. The suit, filed last year, says he ran a “fraudulent enterprise that is rapidly evolving.”
O’Connor has shown he has little patience for sovereign citizen shenanigans, having previously jailed a man for 16 months for ignoring his order to comply with an IRS summons. The 55-year-old Grand Prairie truck driver was eventually released in late 2018.
Presley finally did answer questions in court during a March 16 hearing, providing a rare look into the thought process of a sovereign citizen. O’Connor released him shortly afterward.
Although O’Connor jailed Presley for several months and tossed out his arbitration award, Presley and Ehninger High have not been charged with a crime. The district attorney’s office did not respond to questions about whether it is investigating the matter.
Attempts to reach Presley, 56, for comment were unsuccessful.
Presley operates under an entity in California that he calls the “Healing My People Arbitration Association SSM.” To obtain his services, clients pay a $9 monthly fee or $105 for the year, according to an archived version of his now-disabled website.
Presley told O’Connor in court that his organization is a “self-supporting ministry” and that he is an “independent” Baptist minister who pays no federal income tax.
A Pennsylvania woman, for example, was sentenced last year to a year in prison for filing $15 million in fraudulent liens against an IRS employee. She had mailed the IRS letters “that espoused sovereign citizen ideology,” authorities said. A group of at least five self-proclaimed "sovereign citizens" moved into an empty Maryland mansion and tried to claim it as their own, The Baltimore Sun reported Thursday.
The group, which included a dentist and a convicted sex offender, moved in, changed the locks and put a chain across the driveway with a "private property" sign.
While the government calls them sovereign citizens, they often refer to themselves as a “natural” or “private” person “living on the land,” answerable only to God’s laws. Presley, in his filings, has referred to himself as a “sovereign civilian” and a “private American sovereign” who isn’t a U.S. citizen.
There are many variants, but a central tenet of the movement is that the U.S. is secretly a corporation run by elites based on something that happened in the 1700s or 1800s. As a result, Americans are not bound by their nation’s laws, such as the requirement to pay federal income tax. One can supposedly opt out merely by filing certain paperwork.
Before her financial troubles began, Ehninger High ran a business that bought, fixed and sold distressed real estate properties, or “handyman specials,” mostly to investors for cash, according to her website.
Her mortgage lender foreclosed on her Fort Worth home in Sept. 2018, court records show. The new owner tried to evict her, but Ehninger High refused to leave and instead sued both parties — without a lawyer — in Tarrant County courts, records say. She lost both cases and filed for bankruptcy in Oct. 2019, saying she was unemployed and listing about $45,300 in assets and $340,000 in liabilities, according to court records.
About a month before, Ehninger High filed a “foreign judgment via arbitration” in O’Connor’s court in an attempt to register her alleged $2.9 million award against Justice of the Peace Ralph Swearingin Jr. and County Court at Law Judge Don Pierson, who had ruled against her.
The district attorney’s responded by calling the alleged award “harassing, frivolous and improper,” court records show.
O’Connor threw out the arbitration award in Dec. 2019, ruling that it was fraudulent. He said the law requires parties to agree in advance to arbitrate any disputes, which did not happen in her case. O’Connor called her a “disgruntled litigant” who submitted “nonsensical filings,” and he prohibited her from making any more.
“Attempting to memorialize a baseless arbitration award against elected officials by using the federal court system is a matter of utmost seriousness,” O’Connor wrote in his ruling. “Frivolous filings like that filed here are harassing … as neglecting to address them could lead to serious consequences.”
During the Feb. 2020 hearing, Ehninger High told O’Connor that Presley had advised her to send the documents to the judges and register his arbitration award in federal court.
Matthew Durham, an attorney for the lender that Ehninger High sued, called her filings “nothing more than a hodgepodge of obscure legal references ranging from mentions of the Federal Reserve to quotes from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”
She tried to register a $1.4 million arbitration award — also from Presley — against the mortgage company, records show. Durham said in his Sept. 2019 court filing that organizations like Presley’s prey on people in financial trouble.
“Many financial institutions have recently been experiencing an influx of fake arbitration hearing notices, awards, and even invoices,” he wrote. “Fraudulent arbitration associations … are becoming rampant in our society.”
At the March 16 hearing, Presley agreed to answer questions and declined the offer of an attorney. Presley, shackled and donning a jumpsuit, said he gets clients mostly through “word of mouth.” He said he’s the sole director of his arbitration association, which he called a private business trust.
Presley said the arbitrations are conducted by himself or a two or three-member panel. He said he has no legal education and isn’t associated with any arbitration groups. The documents he makes available to paying members on his website, he said, are obtained “off the web.”
He said he couldn’t recall details of Ehninger High’s arbitration that he held in July 2019 in Bakersfield, Calif., Presley said he tells clients to file their awards in federal court to use the power of the court to enforce the judgments.
Where did he come up with the $2.9 million figure against the two judges? By asking Ehninger High what her “losses” were, he said in court. But Presley said he couldn’t recall what those losses were.
Presley became impatient and annoyed at times during the questioning.
“These judges were accused of fraud and you’re attacking me as if I’m a criminal,” he told the DA’s office lawyer.
O’Connor ruled that Presley never asked for any evidence of an agreement to arbitrate. And the California man issued the award to Ehninger High without the judges’ participation and without giving them any notice of the arbitration’s time and place, the judge wrote.