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New Saint John Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Inc. v. Collier


June 9, 2008


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Camden County, Docket No. C-161-02.

Per curiam.


Submitted December 17, 2007

Before Judges Parrillo and Graves.

This case, involving an intra-church property dispute, returns to us following the remand proceedings we directed in our initial opinion. See New Saint John Christian Methodist Episcopal Church v. Collier, No. A-0689-04 (App. Div. Feb. 9, 2006). In our earlier opinion, we found that the trial judge had "quite properly applied 'neutral principles,'*fn1 in the form of state property law, to this dispute, which involved no 'theological or doctrinal evaluations.'" Id. at 8 (quoting Elmora Hebrew Ctr., Inc. v. Fishman, 125 N.J. 404, 414 (1991)). But we concluded a remand was necessary to determine whether the Book of Discipline (the Book), which had been excluded from evidence, "contained secular rules which became binding on the local church*fn2 when it affiliated with the CME,*fn3 and which are applicable to this dispute." Ibid. We also instructed the trial court to make additional findings of fact regarding ownership of church bank accounts.

Our instructions to the trial court were as follows:

[W]e remand so that the judge may reconsider his otherwise well-considered opinion in light of whatever information the Book contains that bears upon the ownership of the church property as reflected in the various deeds discussed in the judge's opinion. We leave it to the trial judge to decide if any additional testimony is necessary, or if oral argument will suffice. In addition, it is not necessary that the judge restate all of his findings of August 19, 2004. It will be sufficient if his earlier opinion is simply amended to deal with the new information.

In addition, since it appears that plaintiffs are correct that the opinion of August 19, 2004 inadvertently failed to address the issue of church bank accounts, the judge should correct that omission on remand. While it is true, as defendants assert, that the Judgment of September 7, 2004 ordered that the bank accounts belong to the local church, we require some factual findings in that regard in order to perform our review function. R. 1:7-4(a).

[Collier, supra, slip op. at 10.]

At the remand hearing on January 24, 2007, the court determined additional testimony was not needed to resolve the two remanded issues and, following oral argument, it rendered a comprehensive nineteen-page oral decision, which included the following:

The [c]court has considered the provisions of the book of Discipline. Those portions that I believe are relevant, I've commented on their sections, and I find that it does not make a difference in the ruling of the [c]court for the reasons that I've indicated, without repeating them; that the [1983] deed transferred the property unencumbered, . . . without trust language, without any reservation, express or implied, by any other document, in any other manner, and with any other understanding . . . that it should continue as property of the Conference or the District, as the case may be.

It was unequivocal, it was without reservation of any nature, shape or form, the book of Discipline notwithstanding. The book has now been considered in evidence and the result that obtained then obtains now.

The bank accounts. Testimony was that the indigenous members tithed regularly; that whatever the account was when Pastor Wynn came . . . were monies that had been accumulated through their contributions. No question about that. . . .

[Pastor Wynn] testified that he tithed regularly. Now, he was there for seven weeks. What did he tithe? He said $150 a week . . . seven times [$150] would be $1,050, if, in fact, he did.

He was paid $100 a week as a salary so that if the [c]court accepted his testimony, he was contributing $50 a week more than he was receiving for pay.

. . . I found that, and for the record today, find that not credible.

He then said that he wrote a check for $5,000, but he was based on receipt of another source of funding and he learned that the check bounced.

When he investigated, he found that it bounced because a significant portion of the money that he deposited to back up the $5,000 check that he wrote never made it into the account. It was never given, or it was never deposited. Therefore, the check was no good. Not because of anything he did, but, rather, because of something someone else didn't do.

He was asked whether he ever corrected the situation and re-deposited the check or wrote a fresh check. And his answer was no. He did not. So that [$]5,000 doesn't even enter into the [c]court's consideration because it never existed.

. . . [Pastor Wynn] brought some folks with him. They were never identified. And while . . . he said that they made contributions, he never identified the amount.

I think he said that they tithed, but the amount of their tithing was never specified, either by name or amount, that I recall.

So that what the [c]court was left with was a sum of money in accounts that had been established by and contributed by and maintained by and held by the indigenous people . . . . There's no dispute as to that. It was their Church. It was their . . . accounts and it was [their] monies.

And it's for that reason the record should reflect that this [c]court made a determination that those accounts and the funds in them belonged to the indigenous folks, the folks who had been there all the time . . . .

Thus, the trial court's initial judgment in favor of the local church, which was filed on September 27, 2004, was not modified following the remand hearing. The court's oral decision after the remand hearing was memorialized in an order entered on January 26, 2007, and this appeal followed. In their present appeal, plaintiffs present two arguments:

(1) the court erred in denying plaintiff's request to present additional testimony concerning "the intent and understanding of the parties at the time the property in question was conveyed from the C.M.E. Conference to the local church"; and (2) the court erred when it failed to find the Book created "an implied trust in favor of the [plaintiffs]." After reviewing the record and applicable law, we are satisfied that plaintiffs' contentions do not warrant extended discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(A) and (E).

Our scope of review when considering a judgment entered after a bench trial is narrow. Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974) ("Findings by the trial judge are considered binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial and credible evidence."). Generally, "'we do not disturb the factual findings and legal conclusions of the trial judge unless we are convinced that they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice.'" Ibid. (quoting Fagliarone v. Twp. of N. Bergen, 78 N.J. Super. 154, 155 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 40 N.J. 221 (1963)).

In this case, Judge Vogelson conducted the remand proceedings in accordance with our directions; he made detailed findings, which are amply supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record; and he correctly applied well-settled legal principles. We therefore affirm substantially for the reasons expressed by Judge Vogelson in his comprehensive, well- reasoned oral decision on January 24, 2007.


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