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Miodrag Beljakovic v. Bishop Longin and Fr. Pedrag Micic


July 28, 2011


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County, Docket No. L-2036-08.

Per curiam.


Submitted April 12, 2011

Before Judges Baxter, Koblitz, and Hayden.

Plaintiff Miodrag Beljakovic appeals the Law Division order dismissing his complaint for damages and injunctive relief based on an expulsion from his church in 1999, a defamation against him in 2000, and an ongoing refusal to reinstate him. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

I On June 5, 2008, plaintiff filed a pro se complaint requesting money damages and an injunction against defendants, Bishop Longin ("Longin"), also known as Momir Krco, and Father Predrag Micic ("Micic").*fn1 Plaintiff alleged that defendants unlawfully prohibited him from entering certain property of the Serbian Orthodox Church of the Holy Ascension ("Holy Ascension") in Elizabeth, New Jersey and defamed him in a notice posted at the church entrance. Plaintiff further alleged that he has sought reinstatement to full membership annually but Micic has prevented it.

On January 11, 2010, the motion judge granted Longin's motion for summary judgment and dismissed him from the case. On June 11, 2010, a second motion judge granted Micic's motion for summary judgment and dismissed the complaint. Plaintiff filed this appeal.

Viewed most favorably to plaintiff, see Rule 4:46-2(c); Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995), the motion record discloses the following. Plaintiff, now over eighty years old, came to the United States in 1959 from the former Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia. In 1963, the Free Serbian Orthodox Church in America and Canada seceded from the Serbian Orthodox Church ("Mother Church") in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Plaintiff has been a member of Holy Ascension since it was founded in 1971 as part of the Free Serbian Orthodox Church.

In 1991, the Free Serbian Orthodox Church reunified with the Mother Church in Belgrade and recognized the Mother Church as the supreme authority. Subsequently, the Mother Church sent defendant Longin from Belgrade to the United States as an auxiliary bishop in 1997. Shortly thereafter, on May 5, 1999, he became bishop of the diocese.

Soon after the reunification, a dispute arose among church members concerning whether all church property in the United States and Canada belonged to the Mother Church. Plaintiff and many others in the church community throughout the United States strongly opposed this proposition as well as the new constitution supported by the bishop. In 1998, plaintiff published a booklet entitled An Attack on the Free Serbian Orthodox Church, which detailed the efforts being made by the Mother Church authorities in Belgrade to control the "free" part of the church. Additionally, plaintiff and other opponents of the new church leadership formed a national committee to safeguard the Free Serbian Orthodox Church.

As a result of his activities against the bishop and the Mother Church authorities in Belgrade, plaintiff perceived that he was singled out for retaliation. For example, on March 15, 1999, the Holy Ascension Church Board ("Board") sent a warning to plaintiff concerning his writings about church problems. Subsequently, at the annual church meeting on May 2, 1999, plaintiff was expelled from Holy Ascension.

Shortly thereafter, on May 20, 1999, plaintiff wrote to the Board, objecting that he had been expelled on the vote of seventeen members at the annual meeting attended by forty-four members. The remaining twenty-seven members refused to vote. In his letter plaintiff asserted that Micic had initiated the expulsion because plaintiff had insulted Longin and Micic in an open letter sent to Longin on March 5, 1999. Plaintiff requested that the Board provide an official written notification of its expulsion decision. Apparently, plaintiff did not receive a direct response from the Board to his request.

Nevertheless, the following year, in a letter dated June 10, 2000, the Board informed plaintiff that at the June Board meeting, the Board had decided: "To prohibit plaintiff to enter and frequent the Church premises and the courtyard for an unspecified period of time, for the reasons well known to him." The Board did not exclude plaintiff from attending church services. However, he was not permitted to enter the church hall, where most of the congregation's social and cultural activities occurred.

During this same period, plaintiff began objecting to what he described as a "possible misappropriation" of $50,000 of Holy Ascension's funds. Sometime in 2000 he filed a lawsuit*fn2 against Holy Ascension concerning financial improprieties. The Board retained counsel to defend the suit, paying a $1500 retainer. In August 2000, the Board posted a copy of the check at the entrance to the church, along with a notice in Serbian that stated: "This check in the amount of $1500.00 was given to a lawyer as a deposit in the court case which was initiated by Miodrag Beljakovic with his charges. This is the money from your contributions. Signed -- the Board." The notice remained posted for five years.

Plaintiff observed that many parishioners refused to associate with him due to his exclusion from church property and the defamation by the Board. In addition, since the exclusion plaintiff has been deprived of contact with fellow congregants and visitors at the social and cultural events held in the church hall. Further, over the years, Micic succeeded in quashing all proposals at annual meetings to return plaintiff to full membership in the church society. Plaintiff asserted that the actions of defendants and their treatment of him violated his civil, constitutional and human rights. According to plaintiff, defendants' attitude "is not in keeping with the teaching of the Church sacraments about tolerance and forgiveness."

As a result of the expulsion and alleged defamation, plaintiff stated that he has suffered damage to his reputation and social contacts. Defendants also caused additional damages, including "enormous mental anguish, depression, [and] loss of sleep." Plaintiff asked the court to declare that the actions of defendants were in violation of his rights, to return him to the full membership of Holy Ascension, and to enjoin defendants from engaging in similar conduct in the future. Plaintiff also sought an award of monetary damages from Longin and Micic.

In seeking summary judgment defendants argued that the case was time-barred by the statute of limitations as the events for which plaintiff sought relief had occurred in 1999 and 2000. Defendants also argued that the pending complaint was the same as the 2000 complaint and thus precluded by the entire controversy doctrine. In opposing the motions, plaintiff argued that he was still suffering from his exclusion from the Church and that defendants had continued to prevent his reinstatement when it was proposed at the annual meetings. Additionally, plaintiff argued that the 2000 lawsuit against Holy Ascension concerned his allegations of fraud and misappropriation of funds from his local parish, not violation of his rights by Longin and Micic.

The motion judges granted summary judgment to both defendants on the grounds that the statute of limitations barred the claim for damages and the entire controversy doctrine barred any remaining claims against defendant. This appeal followed.

II Our standard for reviewing the grant of a motion for summary judgment is de novo, and we apply the same standard used by the trial court under Rule 4:46-2(c). Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co. v. Boylan, 307 N.J. Super. 162, 167 (App. Div), certif. denied, 154 N.J. 608 (1998). In our review, we must "consider whether the competent evidential materials presented, when viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, are sufficient to permit a rational factfinder to resolve the alleged disputed issue in favor of the non-moving party." Brill, supra, 142 N.J. at 540.

We start with the basic principle that "[s]tatutes of limitations are essentially equitable in nature and are designed to advance timely and efficient litigation." Montells v. Haynes, 133 N.J. 282, 292 (1993) (citing Ochs v. Fed. Ins. Co., 90 N.J. 108 (1982)). As our Supreme Court has stated: The purposes of statutes of limitations, oft-repeated by this Court, are two-fold:(1) to stimulate litigants to pursue a right of action within a reasonable time so that the opposing party may have a fair opportunity to defend, thus preventing the litigation of stale claims, and (2) to penalize dilatoriness and serve as a measure ofrepose.. . . .

The purpose underlying any statute of limitations is to stimulate activity and punish negligence and promote repose by giving security and stability to human affairs. [Gantes v. Kason Corp., 145 N.J. 478, 486 (1996) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).]

The statute of limitations in New Jersey for defamation suits is one year. N.J.S.A. 2A:14-3. "Every action at law for libel or slander shall be commenced within 1 year next after the publication of the alleged libel or slander." Ibid. This statute reflects an "express legislative policy in favor of a short statute of limitations period for defamation." Churchill v. State, 378 N.J. Super. 471, 479 (App. Div. 2005).

To prevail on a defamation claim, plaintiff must prove that defendant communicated a false statement about plaintiff to a third person that harmed plaintiff's reputation in the community. Lynch v. N.J. Educ. Ass'n, 161 N.J. 152, 164-65 (1999). Publication of defamatory matter by written or printed word is libel while publication of defamatory matter by spoken word or gesture is slander. G.D. v. Kenny, 411 N.J. Super. 176, 186 (App. Div. 2009) (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts § 586 (1977)). Here, the alleged defamation was published in August 2000, when the written statement was posted publicly at the church entrance. As plaintiff did not file his action until 2008, his defamation claim is clearly time-barred by the one-year statute of limitation.

Additionally, plaintiff asserted that defendants colluded in his expulsion from the church grounds, thereby intentionally violating what he described variously as his civil, constitutional, or human rights. Plaintiff also claimed that his expulsion caused him severe mental anguish, depression and loss of sleep. N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2 sets forth a statute of limitations of two years for personal injury complaints. "Every action at law for an injury to the person caused by the wrongful act, neglect or default of any person within this State shall be commenced within two years next after the cause of any such action shall have accrued . . . ." Ibid. Thus, no matter what the underlying cause of action, if the gravamen of the complaint is harm to a person the two-year statute of limitations applies. Montells, supra, 133 N.J. at 291; see also Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 105 S. Ct. 1938, 85 L. Ed. 2d 254 (1985) (limitation period for personal injuries applies to all civil rights claims under 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983). A cause of action accrues when one person's actions cause damages to another person. Holmin v. TRW, Inc., 330 N.J. Super. 30 (App. Div. 2000); Gautam v. DeLuca, 215 N.J. Super. 388, 396 (App. Div. 1987).

Accordingly, defendants' alleged violations of plaintiff's rights resulting in personal injury to plaintiff is subject to the two-year statute of limitations under N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2. Plainly, plaintiff knew of the harm when he was expelled from Holy Ascension in May 1999 and certainly no later than June 10, 2000, when he received the Board's letter informing him of the prohibition from entering the church premises. As a result, the applicable statute of limitations would have barred his suit no later than June 10, 2002. Plaintiff's complaint in this suit was filed June 5, 2008, almost six years late.

In order to avoid unduly harsh consequences of the statutory time limits, our Supreme Court has applied equitable principles to conclude that the statute of limitations at times must yield to other considerations. Price v. N.J. Mfrs. Ins. Co., 182 N.J. 519, 524 (2005); see also Roa v. Roa, 200 N.J. 555, 566 (2010) (applying discovery rule to retaliation claim); Shepherd v. Hunterdon Dev. Ctr., 174 N.J. 1, 6-7 (2002) (applying continuous violation doctrine in employment action); O'Keefe v. Snyder, 83 N.J. 478, 498 (1980) (applying fraudulent concealment doctrine in replevin action). Plaintiff, however, has presented no compelling reason for allowing him to litigate stale claims, or any explanation for failing to appeal the previous decision in the intervening years that would equitably toll the statute of limitations. Therefore, we find that, as plaintiff's claims for damages for defamation and for personal injury due to violation of his civil rights is barred by the applicable statutes of limitations, the trial judges correctly granted summary judgment as to these claims.

III Both motion judges also dismissed plaintiff's claims based on the entire controversy doctrine, apparently without having reviewed the papers from the 2000 suit. Plaintiff argues that the 2000 suit involved allegations of fraud in the local church, not defamation, expulsion, and violation of his civil rights. Defendant argued the claims were the same. Neither party provided documents from the prior litigation proving their bare assertion.

The entire controversy doctrine requires that, whenever possible, a party should assert all claims arising from the same set of facts in a single law suit. Harley Davidson Motor Co., Inc. v. Advanced Die Casting, 150 N.J. 489, 497 (1997). A party failing to join all known claims in a single transaction does so "at the risk of being precluded from asserting them in the future." In re Estate of Gabrellian, 372 N.J. Super. 432, 444 (App. Div. 2004), certif. denied, 182 N.J. 430 (2005). A judicial finding that the entire controversy doctrine applies requires a determination that the factual circumstances that give rise to the controversy were the same. Highland Lakes Country Club & Cmty. Ass'n v. Nicastro, 201 N.J. 123, 126 (2009).

In our view the motion judges' findings that this case is barred by the entire controversy doctrine cannot be sustained on the record before us. Complete review of this issue is impossible here, since neither party was able to provide the pleadings, opinion or order in the 2000 case to this court or to the trial court. Without the pertinent documents available to provide a full understanding of the prior litigation, it is not possible to determine whether plaintiff's current complaint truly arose from the same set of facts as the prior litigation, thus causing the entire controversy doctrine to preclude this action. Moreover, we do not need to make this determination as other grounds, as discussed below, are apparent to uphold the order of the court. Velazquez v. Jiminez, 336 N.J. Super. 10, 43 (App. Div. 2000) ("[A] correct result predicated upon an incorrect basis does not preclude an affirmance of that ruling."), aff'd, 172 N.J. 240 (2002).

IV Moreover, plaintiff sought an injunction to end his continued exclusion from church property, as defendant Micic has prevented plaintiff's reinstatement every year at the annual meeting. Yet, due to the ecclesiastical subject matter of the entire complaint, even if any claim survived the statute of limitations hurdle, we must decline to take jurisdiction.

Plaintiff argues that the issues for which he sought court intervention are political, not religious. He states that both defendants were appointees of the "Godless Communist Religious Commission" in Belgrade. In his view, "Longin was sent here to disrupt our tranquil religious life in the U.S. and seize from the parishes as much money as he could for his insatiable bosses in Belgrade, Serbia." Essentially, plaintiff requested the trial court to intervene in a dispute that has arisen between him and the church hierarchy about the nature and extent of the authority of the Mother Church over the former Free Serbian Orthodox Church.

It is well-settled that courts will not get involved in ecclesiastical disputes if resolution depends on inquiring into questions of faith or doctrine. Presbyterian Church v. Hull Mem'l Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 89 S. Ct. 601, 21 L. Ed. 2d 658 (1969). This prohibition is necessary to guard against the danger that the power of the state may be called upon to "breach the wall of separation of church and state by either aiding a faction espousing a particular doctrinal belief, or becoming 'entangled in essentially religious controversies.'" Solid Rock Baptist Church v. Carlton, 347 N.J. Super. 180, 191 (App. Div.) (citing Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 709, 96 S. Ct. 2372, 2380, 49 L. Ed. 2d 151 (1976)), certif. denied. 171 N.J. 440 (2002).

In order to be certain that courts keep to their proper civil sphere, the United States Supreme Court has established two approaches to church disputes: the deference rule and the rule of neutral principles. MD & VA Eldership v. Church of God at Sharpsburg, 396 U.S. 367, 90 S. Ct. 499, 24 L. Ed. 2d 582 (1970); Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U.S. 94, 73 S. Ct. 143, 97 L. Ed. 2d 120 (1952). Under the deference rule, courts "accept the authority of a recognized religious body in resolving a particular doctrinal question." Elmora Hebrew Ctr. v. Fishman, 125 N.J. 404, 414 (1991). On the other hand, the neutral principle rule "calls for the examination and interpretation of church documents such as deeds, constitutions, by-laws, and the like in accordance with wholly secular legal rules whose applications do not entail theological or doctrinal evaluations." Solid Rock Baptist Church, supra, 347 N.J. Super. at 192 (citing Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 604, 99 S. Ct. 3020, 3026, 61 L. Ed. 2d 775, 785 (1979); Elmora Hebrew Ctr., supra, 125 N.J. at 414-15)).

However, "[i]n the absence of clear direction in church law, judicial inquiry into church procedures is precluded." Id. at 196 (citing Chavis v. Rowe, 93 N.J. 103, 112 (1983)). We will intervene and enjoin the expulsion of a church member only if it was done in derogation of the church's own explicit and unambiguous procedural rules. Baugh v. Thomas, 56 N.J. 203 (1970). In Baugh, our Supreme Court exercised jurisdiction over a claim concerning a church member's expulsion because the expulsion proceedings did not accord with the procedure established by the explicit language of the constitution of the church. Id. at 206. Plaintiff argues that Baugh is controlling here. We disagree.

In addressing the expulsion and failure to reinstate, plaintiff has not provided any church constitution, by-laws or church policy concerning procedures for expelling or reinstating church members that have been violated in his case. Indeed, plaintiff has provided us with no neutral church law or policy that supports his request for judicial intervention regarding the initial expulsion or the continued refusal to reinstate him, or on any of the claims in his complaint. Rather, plaintiff argues his entitlement to reinstatement on general fairness and human rights grounds and because "[t]he attitude of these prelates is not in keeping with the teachings of the Church sacraments about tolerance and forgiveness."

Without a clear and unambiguous statement of fully developed neutral principles to guide this court, we cannot intervene. Certainly, we are prohibited from determining if defendants' expulsion of plaintiff and their continued refusal to reinstate him was in keeping with the church's teachings on tolerance and forgiveness. See Solid Rock Baptist Church, supra, 347 N.J. Super. at 191. "[I]nsinuation by civil courts into the customs and usages of the by-laws and constitution, into the administration and the polity of the church in hopes of uncovering clues to the correct disciplinary procedures, threatens the freedom of religious institutions from secular entanglement." Chavis v. Rowe, 93 N.J. at 112. Consequently, the dispute between plaintiff and defendants concerning his continued expulsion and requested reinstatement to full membership, implicating as it does fundamental questions of church administration and discipline, does not present a proper subject for judicial consideration. The grant of summary judgment to defendants was therefore proper.


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