On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County, Docket No. L-2036-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
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 ...