On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hunterdon County, Docket No. L-295-01.
Before Judges Cuff, Axelrad and Winkelstein.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Cuff, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted: September 24, 2003
Plaintiff Steven Balliet filed a complaint alleging breach of fiduciary duty against his pastor, defendant Todd Fennell, and the church that employed Fennell, defendant United Church of Christ (church). He appeals from an order dismissing his complaint as untimely. The issue in this case is whether plaintiff's cause of action for breach of fiduciary duty by his pastor is governed by N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1*fn1 or N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2.*fn2 We hold that the cause of action pled by plaintiff is governed by N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2 and affirm.
In July 1996, plaintiff and his wife were both members of the church at which defendant was the minister. In late July 1996, plaintiff and his wife were experiencing marital difficulties, and plaintiff sought marriage counseling from Fennell. Defendant had completed a course in pastoral counseling in the seminary, and his duties as a minister included giving guidance and counsel to congregants and their families.
Fennell provided counseling to plaintiff, although the length of the counseling is disputed. Plaintiff contends the sessions extended over eight weeks, while defendant asserts the sessions extended no more than three weeks. At some point, Fennell felt he was no longer qualified to provide assistance to plaintiff, and he referred plaintiff to another clergyman.
In October 1996, plaintiff discovered that his wife and Fennell were engaged in an emotionally intimate relationship and that the relationship had begun in August or September 1996. Other members of the congregation learned of the relationship. Eventually, plaintiff and his wife and defendant and his wife divorced. Plaintiff's former wife and Fennell are now married.
On May 21, 2001, plaintiff filed a complaint against Fennell and the church. The complaint alleged that Fennell owed a fiduciary duty as a minister to plaintiff and that he breached that responsibility by engaging in a romantic relationship with plaintiff's wife at the time plaintiff had sought marital and personal counseling from Fennell. Plaintiff sought damages for "emotional trauma and stress, a diminishment of his ability to form trusting relationships, a loss of his ability to freely engage in therapeutic counseling and/or trusting of others in various aspects of his life, together with feelings of humiliation, ridicule and shame in the community."
Judge Bernhard granted defendants' motion for summary judgment. He held that plaintiff's complaint was governed by N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2, and the complaint was filed substantially beyond the two-year limitation prescribed by the statute. On appeal, plaintiff argues that the statute of limitations is siX years, and his complaint was filed well within that period.
In F.G. v. MacDonell, 150 N.J. 550 (1997), the Court recognized that a clergyman owes a fiduciary duty to a parishioner with whom the clergyman establishes a counseling relationship. Id. at 564-65. The Court also held that a sexual relationship between the parishioner and the clergyman while the clergyman is providing pastoral counseling to the parishioner breaches that duty. Id. at 565.
The Court did not, however, address whether a complaint asserting a claim by a parishioner for breach of fiduciary duty by a clergyman must be filed within two years after the cause of action arises in accordance with N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2, or within siX years in accordance with N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1. Neither the Supreme Court nor this court has addressed the issue. Although the precise issue presented in this appeal is a matter of first impression, we are not without guidance for its resolution.
In Montells v. Haynes, 133 N.J. 282, 291 (1993), after first concluding that a single statute of limitations should apply to all claims filed in the Superior Court founded on the Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -42, the Court turned to a consideration of the appropriate limitations period. It stated that its focus was on the nature of the injury, not the legal theory of the claim. Ibid. The Court noted that the Legislature has separated"'injury to the person' from'tortious injury to the rights of another'" and effectively distinguished personal injuries involving physical or emotional harm from those involving economic harm. Ibid. It also observed that courts have historically treated"tortious injury to the rights of another," one of the categories within the six year statute of limitations,"as applying primarily to actions for economic loss." Id. at 291-92. Actions for legal malpractice, engineering malpractice, claims for lost wages based on wrongful discharge, and appropriation of a person's likeness and name for the commercial benefit of another fall within this category and are subject to the six-year limitation period of N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1. Ibid. (citations omitted).
Ultimately, the Court held that the two-year"personal injury" statute of limitations governs all LAD claims filed in the Superior Court. Id. at 292. In doing so, it relied on the Legislature's declaration of policy concerning the consequences of discrimination which identified physical and emotional distress, severe physical and emotional trauma, anxiety, career, and familial adjustment problems as injuries caused by and associated with acts of discrimination. Ibid. The Court observed that each of these injuries is considered an injury to the person and at common law would ...