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J.P v. Calvary Lighthouse*Fn1

February 17, 2011


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County, Docket No. L-2671-09.

Per curiam.


Argued: February 3, 2011

Before Judges Axelrad and J. N. Harris.

Plaintiff appeals from the summary judgment dismissal of her personal injury complaint against defendants church, Calvary Lighthouse Assembly of God, a pastor and an associate pastor, O.D. and W.L., respectively, based on alleged sexual abuse by O.D. The complaint was dismissed as filed beyond the statute of limitations. We affirm.

Viewed most favorably for plaintiff, the nonmoving party, Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995), the motion record reveals the following. Plaintiff began attending the church in 200l, when she was approximately thirty-eight years old. Shortly afterwards, O.D. began counseling her on religious issues. Plaintiff revealed she had been sexually assaulted when she was ten years old. According to plaintiff, O.D. coerced her into an eight-month unwelcome sexual relationship, ending in August 2003. In March 2004, she informed W.L. about the events and he confronted O.D. In January 2005, plaintiff began medical treatment.

On May 11, 2005, plaintiff sent a seven-page letter to the New Jersey Superintendent of the Assembly of God Church, detailing the "inappropriate interactions," her disclosure to W.L., and her medical treatment. She also listed eleven examples of her resulting "immeasurable emotional, mental, physical and financial hardship." The superintendent responded by letter of June 30, 2005, expressing regret and informing her of the status of the disciplinary process initiated by the District against O.D.

Plaintiff filed this complaint on June 1, 2009. In December 2009, the church and W.L. filed motions for summary judgment, arguing plaintiff's complaint was time-barred by the two year statute of limitations, N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2(a), and she could not demonstrate the exception for equitable tolling based on insanity, N.J.S.A. 2A:14-21. The church also asserted the defense of charitable immunity, N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7. Among the church's submissions were plaintiff's May 11, 2005 letter and plaintiff's "statement to [the church] dated August 15, 2005," which primarily tracked the language of her May 11 letter.*fn2

Plaintiff filed opposition and a cross-motion for summary judgment. She submitted her answers to form and supplemental interrogatories, the May 11 and June 30, 2005 letters, and a June 2008 report and case study from her psychologist stating she "was too mentally incapacitated to pursue a lawsuit against the clergy sexual abuser or his church and his denomination."

O.D. did not file a motion or formally join in defendants' motions. His attorney was present but did not participate in oral argument on January 22, 2010. Judge Uhrmacher granted the church's and W.L.'s motions on January 26, 2010, and signed a dismissal order on that date as to all defendants based on plaintiff's failure to comply with the statute of limitations.

Plaintiff moved for reconsideration, certifying, in part, she wrote the May 11, 2005 letter "at the express instruction" of the Superintendent, who "summarized what [she] needed to put in the letter" and "advised [her] not to file a lawsuit at that time." Plaintiff further certified that she followed his instructions and "was not emotionally or mentally able at the time to either consider the propriety of [his] advice, or to file a lawsuit for the damages [she] had suffered." Plaintiff also sought clarification of the order in the absence of a motion by O.D. Following a conference with a different judge, all counsel signed a consent order filed by the court on July l6, 2010, withdrawing plaintiff's motion for reconsideration and "recogniz[ing] and "stipulat[ing]" that the January 26, 2010 order "is binding and final as to all defendants." This appeal ensued.

On appeal, plaintiff argues there is a material issue of fact as to whether her complaint was time-barred, urging us to extend the rationale of R.L. v. Voytek, 199 N.J. 285 (2009), applying the discovery rule to the Child Sexual Abuse Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:6lB-1, to the present case. She further contends summary judgment was premature because O.D. had not provided responses to her interrogatories or document requests and no parties had been deposed. After reviewing the record and applicable law, we are not persuaded by either of plaintiff's arguments.

When reviewing a grant of summary judgment, we employ the same standards used by the motion judge. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co. v. Boylan, 307 N.J. Super. 162, 167 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 154 N.J. 608 (1998). First, we determine whether the moving party has demonstrated that there were no genuine disputes as to material facts, and then we decide whether the motion judge's application of the law was correct. Atl. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Hillside Bottling Co., Inc., 387 N.J. Super. 224, 230-31 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 189 N.J. 104 (2006). We are satisfied summary judgment was appropriate here, as the evidence "'is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.'" See Brill, supra, 142 N.J. at 540 (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252, 106 S. Ct. 2505, 2512, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202, 214 (1986)).

We affirm substantially for the reasons articulated by the motion judge, save for the following brief comments. It would have been preferable for O.D. to have filed a motion for summary judgment or, at a minimum, joined in the motions by a letter to the court. However, considering the determination, as a matter of law, that plaintiff's complaint is barred by the two-year statute of limitations, it was within the court's authority to enter an order for the benefit of all defendants. See Klesh v. Coddington, 295 N.J. Super. 51, 58 (Law Div.) (based on considerations of "efficiency and economy," extending summary judgment relief to the defendant who did not join in co-defendants' motion where the "identical legal analysis" applied to the claims ...

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