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Lewis v. Bellows Falls Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses

United States District Court, D. Vermont

March 25, 2015

ANESSA LEWIS, Plaintiff,
v.
BELLOWS FALLS CONGREGATION OF JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES, BELLOWS FALLS, VERMONT, INC.; WATCHTOWER BIBLE AND TRACT SOCIETY OF NEW YORK, INC.; and NORTON TRUE, Defendants

For Annessa Lewis, Plaintiff: Jerome F. O'Neill, Esq., Gravel & Shea PC, Burlington, VT.

For Bellows Falls Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Bellows Falls, Vermont, Inc., Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Defendants: Pietro J. Lynn, Esq., LEAD ATTORNEY, Lynn, Lynn & Blackman, P.C., Burlington, VT.

For Norton True, Defendant: Thomas W. Costello, Thomas W. Costello PC, Brattleboro, VT; William E. Kraham, Esq., William E. Kraham, PLC, Brattleboro, VT.

Page 763

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON MOTIONS TO DISMISS AND FOR A MORE DEFINITE STATEMENT (Docs. 11, 12)

Honorable J. Garvan Murtha, United States District Judge.

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Anessa Lewis alleges Norton True, a Ministerial Servant of the Jehovah's

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Witness Church, sexually abused her when she was a child. She brings claims against True, the Bellows Falls Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Bellows Falls, Vermont, Inc., and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. for breach of fiduciary duty (Count I), negligence (Count II),ratification (Count III), and fraud by omission/concealment (Count IV). Defendants filed motions to dismiss and for a more definite statement. (Docs. 11, 12.) The motions for a more definite statement seek information relevant to statute of limitations defenses. Lewis opposed the motions to dismiss (Doc. 13), and Defendants Bellows Falls Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Bellows Falls, Vermont, Inc. and Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. filed a reply (Doc. 14). Defendant True did not file a reply.

II. Background

The following facts alleged in the Complaint are assumed to be true for purposes of the pending motions. Defendant Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.(" Watchtower" ) is the head of the Jehovah's Witness Church. (Doc. 1 (Compl.) ¶ 12.) Among other forms of control over the Church, Watchtower reviews and approves or rejects recommendations of Ministerial Servants. (Id. ¶ ¶ 16, 20.) Watchtower also establishes disciplinary processes for church members accused of wrongdoing. (Id. ¶ 17.) Defendant Bellows Falls Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Bellows Falls, Vermont, Inc. (the " Congregation" or " Bellows Falls Congregation" ) has its principal place of business in Windham County, Vermont and was responsible for Jehovah's Witness Church operations in some portions of Windham County at the time of the alleged conduct. (Id. ¶ ¶ 5-6.)

Plaintiff Anessa Lewis was raised in a Jehovah's Witness family. (Id. ¶ 47.) She was associated with the Congregation from birth until after the alleged sexual abuse. (Id.) Defendant Norton True was a Ministerial Servant at the Bellows Falls Congregation at the time of the alleged sexual abuse. (Id. ¶ ¶ 9, 59.)

Before Lewis's fifth birthday, True babysat her at his home. (Id. ¶ 49.) Lewis alleges True lifted her up so she could see horses in a stall in his barn, and he placed his hands under her underwear and touched her genitals. (Id.) Lewis alleges True molested her on multiple occasions. (Id. ¶ 50.) Lewis alleges her mother learned of True's actions when she noticed him attempting to isolate Lewis's sister, Miranda Lewis, in his barn. (Id. ¶ 51.) Lewis's mother took Lewis and Miranda to her car, and True followed them. (Id.) When Miranda asked when True was going to touch her again (Id. ¶ 52), True denied touching her (Id. ¶ 53). Lewis stated she believed her sister because True had touched her as well. (Id. ¶ 54.)

Lewis's mother reported True's conduct to the Bellows Falls Congregation (Id. ¶ 55), which took no action against True (Id. ¶ 56), issued no warnings to Congregation members (Id. ¶ 57), and did not report abuse to any child protective agency or police agency (Id. ¶ 58). On information and belief, Lewis alleges True abused at least three other minors before abusing her (Id. ¶ 61), one of those minors reported the abuse to the Bellows Falls Congregation (Id. ¶ 62), and the Congregation took no action (Id. ¶ 63). III.Discussion

A. Standard of Review

On a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), the Court must accept as true the complaint's factual allegations and draw all inferences in the plaintiff's favor.

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See Mills v. Polar Molecular Corp., 12 F.3d 1170, 1174 (2d Cir. 1993). A complaint should not be dismissed on the pleadings unless it " appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Cleveland v. Caplaw Enters., 448 F.3d 518, 521 (2d Cir. 2006) (citation omitted).

" Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice" to survive a motion to dismiss. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868(2009) (citing Bell A. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)). " [O]nly a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss." Id. at 679 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

B. Breach of Fiduciary Duty (Count I)

Lewis alleges Bellows Falls Congregation and Watchtower entered into a fiduciary relationship with her by " permitting Defendant True to hold himself out as a Ministerial Servant of the Jehovah's Witness Church." (Compl. ¶ 69.) She argues Bellows Falls Congregation and Watchtower breached this fiduciary duty by " choosing not to prevent Defendant True from engaging in the wrongful conduct described [in the Complaint]." (Id. ¶ 70.)

Bellows Falls Congregation and Watchtower argue no fiduciary relationship existed between Lewis and the Jehovah's Witness Church. (Doc. 11, at 6.) Under Vermont law, a fiduciary relationship exists " when one person is under a duty to act for or to give advice for the benefit of another upon matters within the scope of the relation." Knelman v. Middlebury Coll., 570 F. App'x66, 68 (2d Cir. 2014) (citing Handverger v. City of Winooski, 191 Vt. 84, 38 A.3d 1158, 1161(2011)); see also McGee v. Vt. Fed. Bank, FSB, 169 Vt. 529, 726 A.2d 42, 44 (1999) (a fiduciary relationship exists where a principal is " dependent upon, and reposed trust and confidence in" the fiduciary). " It is unclear whether a cause of action for breach of fiduciary duty between a church and its congregants exists in Vermont." Doe v. Newbury Bible Church, No. 1:03-cv-211, 2005 WL 1862118, at *5 (D. Vt. July 20, 2005), report & recommendation adopted, No. 1:03-cv-211, 2005 WL 1962260 (D. Vt. Aug. 15, 2005), aff'd 509 F.3d 69 (2d Cir. 2007).

In Martinelli v. Bridgeport Roman Catholic Diocesan Corp., 196 F.3d 409 (2d Cir. 1999), however, the Second Circuit concluded a jury could have found a fiduciary duty between a church and a particular congregant existed under Connecticut law. See id. at 430. A fiduciary relationship can only be inferred from a specific relationship between a fiduciary and the principal, not from a principal's general status as a member of a church. See id. (" It is reasonable for the jury to conclude that [plaintiff], through the particular activities in which he was involved, including those which the Diocese sponsored, had a particularly close relationship with the Diocese from which a fiduciary duty might arise." ). Thus, Lewis cannot argue the general hierarchy of the Jehovah's Witness Church created any fiduciary duty.

Lewis can, however, argue the specific facts of her relationship with the Bellows Falls Congregation gave rise to a fiduciary duty. See, e.g., Martinelli, 196 F.3d at 430 (a reasonable jury could find a fiduciary duty when plaintiff attended a diocesan school and was taught by priests employed by the Diocese; plaintiff participated in a small group of boys to whom the alleged abuser was a mentor; the alleged abuser spent more time with plaintiff than other similarly situated boys; " [t]hese contacts

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were well known" in the school and Diocesan communities; the Diocese encouraged the alleged abuser to spend time with youths; and the Diocese allowed the alleged abuser to take groups on church field trips); Doe v. Norwich Roman Catholic Diocesan Corp.,309 F.Supp.2d 247, 252 (D. Conn. 2004) (inferring a " unique situation" giving rise to a fiduciary duty when plaintiff alleged he participated in church-sponsored activities and the church chorus with defendant's encouragement; he consulted his alleged abuser for ...


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