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F.G. v. MacDonell

July 22, 1997

F.G., PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
REVEREND ALEX MACDONELL, IN HIS CAPACITY AS FORMER RECTOR, AND REVEREND FLETCHER HARPER, IN HIS CAPACITY AS RECTOR OF ALL SAINTS' EPISCOPAL CHURCH, BERGENFIELD, NEW JERSEY AND ST. LUKE'S EPISCOPAL CHURCH, HAWORTH, NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 291 N.J. Super 262, 677 A.2d 258 (1996).

The opinion of the Court was delivered by Pollock, J. Chief Justice Poritz and Justices Handler, Stein and Coleman join in Justice POLLOCK's opinion. Justice O'hern has filed a separate Dissenting opinion, in which Justice Garibaldi joins.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pollock J.

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

F.G. v. Reverend Alex MacDonell (A-125-96)

Argued March 3, 1997 -- Decided July 22, 1997

Pollock, J., writing for a majority of the Court.

This appeal presents two issues. The first is whether a parishioner's allegation of an inappropriate sexual relationship between a clergyman and the parishioner states a cause of action when the relationship occurs while the clergyman is providing pastoral counseling to the parishioner. The second issue is whether the parishioner may maintain a cause of action against another clergyman who allegedly publicized in a sermon and letter the relationship with the first clergyman.

Because the appeal arises on a motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 4:6-2(e), the Court assumes the truth of the allegations of the complaint. In 1992, Reverend Alex MacDonell was the rector at both All Saints Episcopal Church in Bergenfield and of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Haworth. The Reverend Fletcher Harper was the assistant rector at both churches in 1993. In January 1994, after MacDonell's retirement, Harper succeeded MacDonell as rector. F.G. was a parishioner at All Saints in 1992-93.

From April 1992 to the end of 1993, F.G. consulted MacDonell for counseling. Aware that F.G. was vulnerable, MacDonell nonetheless induced her to engage in a sexual relationship with him. Although the complaint does not describe details of the relationship, it apparently did not involve sexual intercourse.

F.G. seeks, among other things, recovery from MacDonell for clergy malpractice. She alleges that MacDonell owed her a special duty of care, that he engaged in sexual behavior in violation of that special duty, and that he failed to exercise the degree of care that is exercised by the average qualified pastoral counselor. F.G. also seeks recovery from MacDonell for negligent infliction of emotional distress and for breach of fiduciary duty.

F.G. alleges that Harper violated her privacy rights by publishing her identity in an open letter to the two parishes and in a sermon. She also alleges negligent misrepresentation, negligent infliction of emotional distress, defamation, and depiction in a false light against Harper because he suggested in the letter and sermon that the relationship was a voluntary romantic relationship and that F.G. had tried to seduce MacDonell. Finally, F.G. alleges breach of fiduciary duty against Harper.

The Law Division dismissed all counts alleging negligent pastoral counseling, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and breach of fiduciary duty. The Appellate Division reversed, remanding the matter to permit F.G. to prove her claims against MacDonell and Harper for clergy malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty.

HELD: F.G. may maintain a cause of action for breach of fiduciary duty against MacDonell. She may maintain a cause of action against Harper for the same breach if, on remand, the Law Division concludes that it can adjudicate that claim without becoming entangled in church doctrine.

1. A court may not inquire into the validity of a religious belief or practice. It may, however, apply neutral principles of law to decide an issue that does not implicate religious doctrine. In depositions, MacDonell and Harper acknowledged that a sexual relationship between a married rector and an unmarried parishioner violates the rector's fiduciary duty to the parishioner. Two other church officials testified that Episcopal Church doctrine does not sanction improper sexual conduct by rectors. The record supports the inference that MacDonell's alleged misconduct was not an expression of a sincerely held religious belief. Thus, the courts can resolve this claim that a member of the clergy has committed sexually inappropriate conduct in the course of pastoral counseling. (Pp. 7-10).

2. No other court in the United States has yet recognized a clergy-malpractice claim. Such a claim requires definition of the relevant standard of care. Defining the standard could embroil courts in establishing the skill applicable for members of the clergy, and deciding whether clergy had acted in accordance with them. This could restrain the free exercise of religion. (Pp. 11-12).

3. Claims for breach of fiduciary duty are different. The essence of a fiduciary relationship is that one party places trust and confidence in another who is in a dominant or superior position. The fiduciary's obligations to the dependent party include a duty of loyalty and a duty to exercise reasonable skill and care. By accepting a parishioner for counseling, a pastor also accepts the responsibility of a fiduciary. Establishing a fiduciary duty essentially requires proof that a parishioner trusted and sought counseling from the pastor. A violation of that trust constitutes a breach of the duty. But for MacDonell's status as a clergyman, his conduct was unrelated to religious doctrine. Although MacDonell's ultimate goal in counseling F.G. may have been to help her receive assistance from God, his sexual misconduct violated her legal rights. So viewed, F.G.'s claim does not restrict MacDonell's free exercise of religion. (Pp. 13-17).

4. F.G.'s claims against Harper present additional considerations. Harper's alleged breaches occurred in sermons and letters to the congregations. Evaluation of those sermons and letters might entangle a court in religious doctrine. The trial court must hold a hearing to determine whether it can adjudicate Harper's alleged breach by reference to neutral principles. If it can, F.G. may maintain her action against Harper. (Pp. 17-18).

The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED in part and REVERSED in part, and the matter is REMANDED to the Law Division.

Justice O'HERN, Dissenting, is of the view that the majority makes the pastor's conduct a tort because he is a cleric. He notes that no principle of civil law makes it a tort for competent adults to engage in consensual sexual conduct. Whatever one may think of the morality of the acts involved, a breach of the tenets of the pastor's Episcopal religion does not give rise to a tort action.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES HANDLER, STEIN and COLEMAN join in JUSTICE POLLOCK's opinion. JUSTICE O'HERN has filed a separate Dissenting opinion, in which JUSTICE GARIBALDI joins.

The opinion of the Court was delivered by

POLLOCK, J.

This appeal presents two issues. The first issue is whether a parishioner's allegation of an inappropriate sexual relationship between a clergyman and the parishioner states a cause of action when the relationship occurs while the clergyman is providing pastoral counseling to the parishioner. Second, we must decide whether the parishioner may maintain a cause of action against another clergyman who allegedly publicized in a sermon and a letter the relationship with the first clergyman.

The Law Division dismissed all claims of the parishioner, F.G., against the first clergyman, the Reverend Alex MacDonell, as well as her claim against the second clergyman, the Reverend Fletcher Harper, for clergy malpractice and breach of fiduciary duty. The Appellate Division reversed and remanded the matter to the Law Division. 291 N.J. Super. 262, 677 A.2d 258(1996). We granted leave to appeal to MacDonell and Harper. 146 N.J. 562, 683 A.2d 1159 (1996).

We conclude that F.G., may maintain a cause of action for breach of fiduciary duty against MacDonell, formerly the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church, Bergenfield, New Jersey (All Saints). MacDonell, who was married at the time of the events described in the complaint, is the clergyman who allegedly induced F.G. to engage in the inappropriate sexual relationship. F.G.'s cause of action against defendant Rev. Fletcher Harper is more problematic. Harper wrote a letter and delivered a sermon to the congregation about MacDonell's relationship with F.G. Whether F.G. may maintain her action against Harper depends on whether a court may adjudicate her claims without becoming entangled in church doctrine. If on remand the Law Division concludes it can avoid any such entanglement, then F.G. may maintain her cause of action against Harper for breach of fiduciary duty.

I.

Because the appeal arises on defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 4:6-2(e), we assume the truth of the allegations of the complaint, giving plaintiff the benefit of all reasonable factual inferences that those allegations support. See Independent Dairy Workers Union v. Milk Drivers Local 680, 23 N.J. 85, 89, 127 A.2d 869 (1956). If a generous reading of the allegations merely suggests a cause of action, the complaint will withstand the motion. Printing Mart-Morristown v. Sharp Elec. Corp., 116 N.J. 739, 746, 563 A.2d 31 (1989). So read, the record supports the following factual statement.

In 1992, MacDonell was the rector at both All Saints and an affiliated church, St. Luke's Episcopal Church, in Haworth. Harper was the assistant rector at both churches in 1993. In January 1994, following MacDonell's retirement, Harper succeeded ...


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