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F.G. v. MacDonell

June 14, 1996


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County.

Approved for Publication June 14, 1996.

Before Judges Havey, D'Annunzio and Braithwaite. The opinion of the court was delivered by D'annunzio, J.A.D.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: D'annunzio

The opinion of the court was delivered by D'ANNUNZIO, J.A.D.

This action for damages is based on a sexual relationship between plaintiff, an adult female, and defendant Rev. Alex MacDonell. The action against defendant Rev. Fletcher Harper is based on his disclosure to the congregation of the relationship between plaintiff and MacDonell.

Defendants moved for judgment on the pleadings, pursuant to R. 4:6-2(e). The court granted the motion on all counts against MacDonell and on Count IX against Harper. The three counts against MacDonell allege causes of action for negligence as a provider of "pastoral care and pastoral counseling," negligent infliction of emotional distress "in committing pastoral care and pastoral counseling malpractice," and breach of fiduciary duty. Count IX charged that Harper breached his fiduciary duty to plaintiff by "exploiting [her] trust and confidence by invading her privacy, making negligent misrepresentations to her . . . defaming her, and by depicting her in a false light." The remaining counts against Harper allege invasion of privacy, negligent misrepresentation, defamation and depicting plaintiff in a false light.

The trial court determined that the counts against MacDonell and Count IX against Harper asserted causes of action described as clergy malpractice and that such a cause of action is not recognized, citing Schmidt v. Bishop, 779 F. Supp. 321 (S.D.N.Y 1991). In Schmidt the court ruled that clergy malpractice was not actionable under New York law. The court held that recognition of such a cause of action would unduly entangle the courts with religion, in violation of the First Amendment.

We granted plaintiff's motion for leave to appeal, and we now reverse and remand for further proceedings.

The standard under which motions to dismiss are considered is well-established in New Jersey. Trial courts should "approach with great caution applications for dismissal under R. 4:6-2(e) for failure of a complaint to state a claim on which relief may be granted." Printing Mart-Morristown v. Sharp Elec. Corp., 116 N.J. 739, 771-72, 563 A.2d 31 (1989). The test for determining the adequacy of a pleading is whether a cause of action is "suggested" by the facts. See Velantzas v. Colgate-Palmolive Co., 109 N.J. 189, 192, 536 A.2d 237 (1988). In reviewing a complaint dismissed pursuant to R. 4:6-2(e), the inquiry is limited to examining the legal sufficiency of the facts alleged on the face of the complaint. See Rieder v. Department of Transp., 221 N.J. Super. 547, 552, 535 A.2d 512 (App. Div. 1987). However, a reviewing court "searches the complaint in depth and with liberality to ascertain whether the fundament of a cause of action may be gleaned even from an obscure statement of claim, opportunity being given to amend if necessary." Di Cristofaro v. Laurel Grove Memorial Park, 43 N.J. Super. 244, 252, 128 A.2d 281 (App. Div. 1957). For purposes of analysis plaintiffs are entitled to every reasonable inference of fact. See Independent Dairy Workers Union v. Milk Drivers Local 680, 23 N.J. 85, 89, 127 A.2d 869 (1956). "The examination of a complaint's allegations of fact required by the aforestated principles should be one that is at once painstaking and undertaken with a generous and hospitable approach." Printing Mart-Morristown, supra, 116 N.J. at 746.

Applying these principles, we glean from the complaint the following allegations. Plaintiff was a parishioner at All Saints' Episcopal Church, and MacDonell was the rector there and at Saint Luke's Episcopal Church. Plaintiff sought counseling from MacDonell. The nature and scope of the counseling is not defined in the complaint. MacDonell assumed the role of counselor and thereby became aware of plaintiff's emotional vulnerabilities. MacDonell exploited those vulnerabilities to induce plaintiff to engage in sexual acts with him. The complaint describes the counseling relationship between plaintiff and MacDonell as "a special relationship in which MacDonell owed a special duty of care not to engage in unethical and harmful behavior towards [plaintiff]." Plaintiff alleges that MacDonell violated that duty of care causing physical, emotional and psychological injury.

Count III alleges that MacDonell had a fiduciary duty to act in plaintiff's best interests and "to refrain from conduct which carried with it the foreseeable and unreasonable risk of mental or emotional harm to her," and that MacDonell breached his fiduciary duty "by wrongfully and unlawfully exploiting [plaintiff's] trust and confidence by engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior with plaintiff."

The complaint also alleges that plaintiff filed a complaint with the "Standing Commission on Clergy Ethics of the Diocese of Newark," and that the committee determined that MacDonell "violated his pastoral relationship with plaintiff . . . by engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior toward her." The committee "sanctioned" MacDonell in March 1994.

In Count IX, the count against Harper dismissed by the court, plaintiff alleges that Harper breached a fiduciary duty owed to plaintiff by the manner in which he informed the congregation of plaintiff's relationship with MacDonell.

The trial court's dismissal of the counts against MacDonell was consistent with a line of decisions resistant to the concept of "clergy malpractice." As previously indicated, the trial court cited Schmidt v. Bishop, supra, 779 F. Supp. 321. Schmidt was a member of a New York Presbyterian church. In 1960, when she was twelve, her parents brought her to Reverend Bishop, the church's pastor, for "'emotional, spiritual and familial counseling.'" Id. at 324. Schmidt alleged that she became emotionally dependent on Bishop and that he initiated sexual contact with her shortly after the counseling relationship began. According to Schmidt, defendant "invoked God as supporting the conduct . . . and informed her that 'the relationship was special ...

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