On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey Chancery Division, General Equity Part, Cumberland County, Docket No. C-30-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Cuff and Payne.
Plaintiff, claiming to be the West Baptist Church of Vineland, New Jersey, appeals from an order of a judge of the Chancery Division, General Equity Part, (1) dismissing its action seeking to invalidate the transfer of property formerly owned by the "original" West Baptist Church to The Church of God of the Garden State (COG-Garden State), the State organization overseeing the Church of God New Vision of Vineland (COG-New Vision), for the exclusive use and benefit of the church's parent organization, the Church of God, Cleveland, Tennessee, U.S.A. (COG-Tennessee), (2) determining that said transfer was valid and appropriate, and (3) granting clear title to the property to the Church of God of the Garden State. Defendant, third-party plaintiff, COG-New Vision, the occupier of the property, cross-appeals from the dismissal with prejudice of its claim of fraud against third-party defendant, Juan Marquez, the former pastor of COG-New Vision and, at time of trial, the present pastor of the allegedly reconstituted West Baptist Church.
This matter has a lengthy history. The West Baptist Church was formed on April 4, 1895 as an independent church having a congregational form of governance. It thus could own property in its own name without any present or future ownership interest by a parent religious organization, as would be the case if a hierarchical church structure existed. On September 25, 1952, it acquired 15.3 acres of property including a tabernacle and parsonage located at 61 West Chestnut Avenue, Vineland. In or around 1978, defendant Edmund J. Hampton became the church's pastor. Over time, membership in the church declined until, in 1994, five members remained, including Pastor Hampton and his wife. The church's debt, including unpaid taxes, was considerable.
On July 17, 1994, the five remaining members of the church voted unanimously to dissolve the fellowship of the West Baptist Church and to "[s]ell all church properties including land, buildings and contents of buildings." Notice that the property was for sale attracted the interest of COG-New Vision, a church that lacked a permanent place of worship, and its pastor, Juan Marquez. Negotiations over price ensued and, in balloting conducted on January 15, 1995, the remaining members of the West Baptist Church voted to accept COG-New Vision's offer of $225,000 for the property. A resolution*fn1 memorialized by Abner F. Ney, Jr., the sole remaining trustee*fn2 of West Baptist Church stated:
BE IT RESOLVED that approval was made on the sale of 15.3 acres, two buildings, and inventoried contents of these two buildings located on Tabernacle Lane; Vineland, New Jersey for the sum of $225,000.00 to Rev. Juan Marquez, Church Of God New Vision; Vineland, New Jersey.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that Rev. Edmund Hampton is authorized to sign and execute any documents for the West Baptist Church.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that Rev. Edmund Hampton and Charlotte Hampton, church treasurer, were appointed to represent the West Baptist Church at the settlement of said property.
On January 15, 1995, four members of the West Baptist Church voted unanimously for "dismissal of [the] four members from the church roll."
A contract for sale of the property was entered in late July 2005 by Pastor Hampton, on behalf of the West Baptist Church, and Pastor Marquez, on behalf of COG-New Vision. The contract required a refundable deposit of $10,000, established September 29, 1995 as the closing date, and contained a mortgage contingency clause that provided "if Buyer has not obtained a commitment within 60 days, the parties may mutually agree to extend this contingency period for an additional period of time."
Difficulties in obtaining mortgage financing led to a first amendment to the contract of sale, extending the time for obtaining a mortgage. In a second amendment, executed only by Pastors Hampton and Marquez, COG-Garden State was added as a co-buyer; and in a third-amendment, executed by Pastors Hampton and Marquez on October 18, 1995, the parties agreed that, upon payment of an additional $10,000, COG-New Vision could take possession of the property. Thereafter, COG-New Vision would be responsible for payment of utilities, taxes and maintenance costs. The agreement provided that the total $20,000 deposit could be used by West Baptist Church to pay outstanding utility and tax bills. It also established an estimated closing date of November 30, 1995, subject to extension by mutual agreement, and it provided that COG-New Vision was entitled to return of the $20,000 if the property were sold to another entity.
Sale of the property never occurred, but COG-New Vision remained in possession. Over time, Nye died, and contact was lost with the other church member, the church pianist. Thus, the Hamptons remained as the sole known former members of the church. At various times, Daniel Hoffman, attorney for West Baptist Church, sought authorization to commence an eviction action against COG-New Vision. Authorization was refused by Pastor Hampton. As Pastor Hampton testified at the trial of this matter,
I said no, we want to keep this on a Christian level. We are working with them. Anything we can do for the Church of God New Vision to have this property, we want them to have it.
Pastor Hampton's position was "[n]o eviction under any circumstances." He testified that "our part was to be gracious. Our part was how can we help them, that kind of thing." In July or August 1997, attorney Hoffman was discharged from further representation of West Baptist Church.
In the ensuing years, various efforts were made by COG-New Vision to amass the funds necessary to purchase the property. On August 13, 2000, a church member, Ricky Torres, contributed $5,000 for the purchase of the property. The funds were not utilized for that purpose. In a letter dated May 8, 2001, addressed to Pastor Marquez, with a copy sent to the COG-Garden State, Torres recited a series of questionable financial transactions undertaken by Pastor Marquez, including misuse of his $5,000 donation, and he demanded its return. Subsequently, Torres filed a formal complaint against Pastor Marquez with the church. Following a preliminary investigation, an ecclesiastical trial was held on June 7, 2001 and a three-year audit was demanded. However, Pastor Marquez refused to relinquish the church's books and, on the day of the scheduled audit, June 10, 1995, Marquez signified that he was leaving the COG by stapling his credentials to the church door. Although Pastor Marquez sought to conduct a service at the church on June 17, he was not permitted to do so. As required by COG-Garden State, Marquez then quit the parsonage and, after living for several months in the area with his son-in-law, Marquez and his wife moved to Florida. The $5,000 donated by Torres was repaid to him by Marquez by means of a loan from his brother-in-law.
In July 2005, Marquez returned to New Jersey, taking employment as a truck driver. Upon Marquez's return, he established a small unaffiliated church congregation of approximately eight members and, after a failed attempt to purchase other property for his fledgling church, he commenced a further effort to acquire the West Baptist Church property, which COG-New Vision had continued to occupy, rent free, with the acquiescence of Pastor Hampton. Pastor Marquez justified his actions at trial by testifying that he was called upon by God to "find Pastor Hampton and tell him to pass on the ministry to us and that we continue with the church." After consulting with a member of Pastor Marquez's congregation, Fernando Cruz, Pastor Marquez sought out Pastor Hampton.
Through an internet search, Pastor Marquez found an address for Pastor Hampton. One of Pastor Hampton's neighbors gave Pastor Marquez the name of Pastor Hampton's former employer, Ranch Hope for Boys, and that employer directed Pastor Marquez to Pastor Hampton's present church and parsonage in Alloway Township. At the time, Pastor Hampton was in poor health, having had three heart attacks and open-heart surgery for a valve replacement. He continued to suffer from dizzy spells, fainting spells, tiredness, and listlessness. His wife had died in 2002.
In late October 2005, Pastor Marquez and his wife appeared, unannounced, at Pastor Hampton's door. Although Pastor Hampton did not initially recognize Pastor Marquez, after Pastor Marquez introduced himself, he was warmly received. Pastor Marquez and his wife were invited by Pastor Hampton into his home, where conversation turned to the COG-New Vision and to the condition of the West Baptist Church property. Pastor Hampton testified at trial that Pastor Marquez had stated he was no longer with the Church of God New Vision, that he had gone on to Florida. And he said that he had noticed at the former West Baptist Church that the property was in very poor condition and that the congregation was really at an all-time low.
And he said I would like to restore all that under the name of the West Baptist Church, bring it back up like it was before. And so then I said, well, is the pastor who is there now going to meet with us?... I thought it odd that he wasn't with Pastor Marquez, you know. And, as I say, first his answer to that was no.... [B]ut then he didn't elaborate as to why ...