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Michael Augustave and Manoah Gracia v. Charles Cheatham and Allegheny East Conference of Seventh Day Adventists

May 20, 2011

MICHAEL AUGUSTAVE AND MANOAH GRACIA, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
CHARLES CHEATHAM AND ALLEGHENY EAST CONFERENCE OF SEVENTH DAY ADVENTISTS, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Docket No. L-1954-07.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued February 1, 2011

Before Judges Messano and Waugh.

Plaintiffs Michael Augustave and Manoah Gracia appeal from an order granting summary judgment to defendants Allegheny East Conference of Seventh Day Adventists and its president, Charles Cheatham. Plaintiffs raise the following issues on appeal:

POINT I

THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN DISMISSING PLAINTIFFS' DEFAMATION CLAIM BASED ON A QUALIFIED PRIVILEGE BECAUSE: A) DEFENDANTS' ASSERTIONS DID NOT MEET THE CRITERIA FOR QUALIFIED PRIVILEGE; B) THERE WERE DISPUTED ISSUES OF FACT; AND C) THE ISSUE OF ABUSE OF THE PRIVILEGE WAS FOR THE JURY.

POINT II

THE COURT ERRED IN FINDING THAT THE STATEMENTS WERE NOT DEFAMATORY BY FAILING TO PROPERLY APPLY THE TEST FOR DETERMINING DEFAMATION, BY FAILING TO CONSIDER THAT THE STATEMENTS WERE DEFAMATION PER SE AND BECAUSE THERE WERE GENUINE ISSUES OF MATERIAL FACT, PRECLUDING SUMMARY JUDGMENT.

POINT III

THE COURT ERRED IN DISMISSING PLAINTIFFS' FALSE LIGHT CLAIM WITHOUT MAKING ANY FINDINGS OF FACT OR CONCLUSIONS OF LAW.

POINT IV

THE TRIAL COURT'S RULING THAT IT HAD SUBJECT MATTER JURISIDICTION SHOULD BE AFFIRMED BECAUSE THE CLAIM DOES NOT INVOLVE RELIGIOUS DOCTRINE.

We have considered the arguments raised in light of the record and applicable legal standards. We affirm.

We discern the following facts from the motion record when viewed in a light most favorable to plaintiffs. R. 4:46-2;

Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995).

In the early 1990s, plaintiffs, members of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, organized and founded the Morija Seventh-Day Adventist Church (Morija) in West Orange. As "elder[s]" of the church, plaintiffs were members of Morija's board and "attend[]ed . . . board meeting[s]" with the church's pastor and officers; they also acted as "spiritual leader[s]." Gracia's wife, Dr. Anne Marie Gracia, was a church official and served as Morija's treasurer.

The Seventh-Day Adventist faith is organized in a hierarchical structure as follows: 1) the local church; 2) the "local conference or local field/mission"; 3) the "union conference or union mission," which consists of a "united body of conferences . . . within a larger territory"; and 4) the "General Conference," which "embraces all unions in all parts of the world." Morija belonged to a local conference, defendant Allegheny East Conference (the Conference), which oversaw the activities of 137 churches in the region and owned two-thirds of the individual church buildings. Local churches "agree[d] to follow" various "rules and guidelines" in order to be recognized as a member of the Conference. Morija officers bound themselves to "follow the[se] rules" in order to "become a church."

The "Church Manual" detailed the rights and obligations of all Seventh-Day Adventist churches and delineated the responsibilities of church officers and members. In addition to their professional duties, elders and officers were expected to exhibit both "[m]oral fitness" and "[r]eligious [f]itness" since the "prosperity" of the denomination "depend[ed] largely upon its leadership." The officers were obligated to appropriately administer church finances and funds, including members' "tithe[s]," i.e., the requirement that members provide "one tenth of their . . . personal income" to the church treasury. Tithes could not be "used or disbursed by the local church" but were "remitted" to the local conference, which in turn "remit[ted] one tenth" of the tithes to the union conference. Tithes could only be allotted for "the work of the ministry," such as Bible teachings and outreach services, and could "not . . . be spent on other work, on paying church or institutional debts, or on building programs."

The Church Manual encouraged local church officers to create a budget to "provid[e] for local church expenses" from income sources other than the tithes. If a local church desired to construct a new building, the Church Manual provided:

On Financing Church Buildings -- Churches contemplating either the purchase or erection of church buildings are cautioned against undertaking financial obligations which would be likely to embarrass the membership; . . .

In the purchase or building of church properties, in no case shall commitments be made or building operations be begun until approval has been given by the local conference/mission/field and union conference/mission committees, after these have assured themselves that the financial arrangements are in line with established policies. [(Emphasis added).]

The Church Manual further provided that the "church treasurer" oversee the finances of the local church and "disburse[]" according to the requirements of the Manual. To ensure against misuse of church money, the General Conference used auditors to review "the handling of funds."

The Church Manual discouraged churchgoers from "seeking decrees of civil courts" if disputes arose among members and leaders of the church. ...


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