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Lewis v. Bellows Falls Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Bellows Falls, Vermont, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Vermont

March 30, 2017



          J. Garvan Murtha United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Annessa Lewis (“Lewis” or Plaintiff) commenced this diversity action in October 2014. (Doc. 1.) She alleges Norton True (“True”), a Ministerial Servant of the Jehovah's Witness Church, sexually abused her when she was a child. The claim remaining against Bellows Falls Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Bellows Falls, Vermont, Inc. (the “Congregation”) and Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. (“Watchtower”), following motions to dismiss, see Docs. 15, 35, is for negligence based on duties to perform an undertaking and to supervise. (Doc. 35.) Lewis seeks damages for past and continuing “great pain of mind and body, shock, emotional distress, physical manifestations of emotional distress, embarrassment, loss of self-esteem, disgrace, humiliation, and loss of enjoyment of life, ” spiritual suffering, loss of earnings and earning capacity, and expenses for medical and psychological treatment, therapy, and counseling, as well as for being and continuing “to be prevented from performing [her] daily activities and obtaining the full enjoyment of life.” (Doc. 20 (First Am. Compl. (“FAC”)) ¶¶ 92, 107.) The Congregation, Watchtower, and True (collectively, “Defendants”) move for summary judgment dismissing the complaint in its entirety. (Docs. 188, 199.) Lewis opposes the motions (Docs. 193, 202) and Defendants filed replies (Docs. 195, 207). Defendants also filed motions to strike Plaintiff's statements of disputed material facts. (Docs. 196, 206.) The motions to strike are unopposed. For the following reasons, the Defendants' motions for summary judgment are granted.

         II. Background[1]

         Annessa Lewis was the third of four siblings of a Jehovah's Witness family. Her date of birth is January 9, 1987. The family moved to Vermont that year and began attending meetings at the Bellows Falls Kingdom Hall in late 1987 or 1988. The Congregation owns the Kingdom Hall in Bellows Falls, Vermont. Watchtower is a religious corporation located in Brooklyn, New York. True, a married father of three, was a baptized member of the Bellows Falls Congregation from 1976 to 2012 and served as a ministerial servant from 1976-1986 and 1995-2012.[2]

         True and Lewis's mother and father were baptized publishers at the time of the alleged sexual abuse of Lewis. A baptized publisher is a baptized member of the Jehovah's Witness church who participates in field service and actively shares the message of the Bible. True, a civil engineer, also handled all aspects of the maintenance of the Kingdom Hall, along with two others, worked on wastewater system issues, and kept the ventilation system running during meetings. He assisted in the magazine and literature departments and counted attendance at meetings, occasionally seating attendees if attendance was high. Lewis asserts these tasks were typically assigned to ministerial servants. (Doc. 193-1 ¶¶ 13-14, 25, 161.) She also states he hosted Congregation events at his farm and worked for Watchtower on the “Quick Build Kingdom Hall construction program” during the late 1980s and early 1990s, participated in construction projects, and worked as a Site Planning Coordinator for the Massachusetts Regional Build Committee. Id.; see also Doc. 193-2 ¶¶ 16-17, 19-22.

         At the time of the sexual abuse of Lewis, Lewis's mother and True's daughter, Stacy Bathrick, were best friends. Stacy regularly babysat Lewis and her siblings during the early 1990s, including at the time of the abuse alleged in this case, which occurred when Lewis was roughly five years old or in preschool in 1991, 1992 or 1993. Stacy took Lewis to her father's home on the day of the abuse without Lewis's mother's awareness. Lewis alleges True took her to his horse barn and reached down her overalls under her underwear and touched her vagina. (Doc. 202-4 (Lewis Dep.) 124:1-5; 128:12-130:25.)

         Lewis did not tell anyone of the abuse until 1996 when she was nine. That summer, her family attended a going-away party for another Congregation family at True's house. As the Lewis family was leaving, Lewis's younger sister Miranda said she had been “touched” by True; Lewis informed her mother he had also “touched” her. (Doc. 202-2 ¶¶ 40, 43.) At that time, Lewis knew what True had done to her was wrong. Lewis's mother reported the abuse to a Congregation elder, Matthew Reimann. Elders function as a sort of board of directors of a congregation handling administrative tasks, care for the spiritual needs of the congregation, and apply biblical principles to address allegations of sin and wrongdoing within a congregation. (Doc. 202-2 ¶ 15.)

         Lewis's mother took her to a therapist for observation and also sought advice from Dr. Barbara Belcher-Timme, Psy. D., a psychologist and mandated reporter. In September 1996, the Vermont State Police were notified of Lewis's and Miranda's allegations and the girls met with a detective. In November, Lewis's mother was advised True would not be charged. In late 1996 or early 1997, as a result of True's abuse, Lewis and her family stopped attending the Bellows Falls Congregation and joined the South Claremont, New Hampshire Congregation. They left the Jehovah's Witness religion altogether in 2000, as a result of a degrading relationship with the congregation and religion caused by the incident with True. Around 2001, when she was fourteen, Lewis saw Dr. Belcher-Timme. Lewis understood her mother brought her to the psychologist because she was cutting herself. (Doc. 202-2 at ¶ 88.) She testified she was feeling depressed and “had some mental health issues going on” at that time. (Doc. 202-4 (Lewis Dep.) 153:5-25.)

         Lewis has always believed she was sexually abused by True. The Lewis family discussed the molestation throughout Lewis's childhood and Lewis and her older sister specifically discussed it on many occasions during her teenage years. When she was 14 or 15, Lewis began to experience flashbacks, and was interrupted in an attempt to be physically intimate with a boyfriend by memories of True sexually abusing her. (Doc. 193-1 ¶¶ 135-36; Doc. 202-2 ¶¶ 97-99.) She testified she first remembers experiencing depression around age 14 as it “intensified.” (Doc. 202-4 (Lewis Dep.) 99:21-24; 182:19-20.) In high school, she posted about having experienced the abuse, talked about it with her boyfriend, and discussed it with close high school friends. In a July 2004 journal entry, Lewis [mentioned] “the man who molested Miranda and I, ” and reflected on her experience with True, “Why is this old and trusted man's hand down my pants and no memories left of the sunny afternoons I used to lay out on the lawn with my dad.” (Doc. 202-2 ¶¶ 115-16, 119.) In August 2004 entries, she wrote her history of men included “my sexual abuser, ” who she identifies as True, and referred to having been “sexually assaulted” by True. Id. ¶¶ 121, 124, 126. In 2014, Lewis wrote to a friend that she “used to talk about [the abuse] as part of the healing process, realizing it was an act done to me that I had no willing part in.” Id. ¶ 143.

         Lewis asserts the Congregation and Watchtower have a policy of “vigilantly monitoring” accused molestors for the safety and protection of children whenever the molester is in the congregational setting. (Doc. 193-1 ¶¶ 22-23.) In 1990, True's daughter Stacy's step-daughter, Rebecca Bathrick, accused True, her step-grandfather, of sexual molestation. Congregation elders, including Reimann, were informed of the allegation, and that it was later withdrawn; the elders took no action against True. Id. ¶¶ 33-34. Lewis testified at her deposition that she was not aware prior to her case of the Bathrick allegation of abuse. (Doc. 193-12 (Lewis Dep.) at 173:4-14.)

         III. Discussion

         A. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate only where the parties' submissions show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. The Court must resolve ambiguities and draw inferences in favor of the opposing party and decide whether a rational juror could decide in favor of that party under applicable law. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007); Salahuddin v. Goord, 467 F.3d 263, 272 (2d Cir. 2006) (citation omitted). A material fact is one that “might affect the outcome of the suit.” Roe v. City of Waterbury, 542 F.3d 31, 35 (2d Cir. 2008). To defeat summary judgment, a party must “do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). There must be “evidence on which the jury could reasonably find” for the opposing party. Jeffreys v. City of New York, 426 F.3d 549, 553-54 (2d Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Accordingly, “as to any claim, or essential element thereof, for which the nonmoving party bears the burden of proof at trial, the nonmoving party must make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of that claim or element.” Billado v. Parry, 937 F.Supp. 337, 341 (D. Vt. 1996). If the nonmoving party fails to do so, the moving party may obtain summary judgment by “simply point[ing] out the absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case.” Nora Beverages, Inc. v. Perrier Group of Am., Inc., 164 F.3d 736, 742 (2d Cir. 1998).

         The court's function is not to resolve disputed issues of fact but only to determine whether there is a genuine issue of material fact to be tried. See, e.g., Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986); Rule v. Brine, Inc., 85 F.3d 1002, 1011 (2d Cir. 1996). “If, as to the issue on which summary judgment is sought, there is any evidence in the record from which a reasonable inference could be drawn in favor of the opposing party, summary judgment is improper.” Fischl v. Armitage, 128 F.3d 50, 56 (2d Cir. 1997) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         Credibility assessments, choices between conflicting versions of the events, and the weighing of evidence are matters for the jury, not for the court on a motion for summary judgment. See, e.g., Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e) 1963 advisory committee's note; Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255.

         B. The Congregation & Watchtower's Joint Motion for Summary Judgment

         1. Statute of Limitations

         If the statute of limitations bars Lewis's claim, she cannot show an entitlement to relief and her complaint must be dismissed. Brown v. Castleton State Coll., 663 F.Supp.2d 392, 396 (D. Vt. 2009). Vermont has a six-year statute of limitations for actions based on “childhood sexual abuse, ” running from either the date “of the act alleged to have caused the injury or condition” or “the time the victim discovered that the injury or condition was caused by that act.” Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 12, § 522(a). The statute of limitations is tolled during the time a plaintiff is a minor. Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 12, § 551. Lewis was born January 9, 1987. Accordingly, she has not been a minor since January 9, 2005, and the six-year limitations period would expire on January 9, 2011, unless the discovery rule extended the period. Lewis commenced this action on October 1, 2014. (Doc. 1.)

         Lewis does not refer to specific dates she sustained or discovered her injuries in her complaint and does not allege how she discovered her injuries. She merely alleges that “prior to [her] fifth birthday . . . Defendant True . . . touched [her] bare genitals” (FAC ¶ 49)[3] and “[w]ithin the six years predating the filing of this Complaint, [she] discovered that the injuries and conditions as to which she complains herein were caused by the childhood sexual abuse . . . and that Defendants were responsible for the injuries and conditions, ” (FAC ¶ 2). Lewis's remaining theories of liability against the Congregation and Watchtower are negligent performance of an undertaking and negligent supervision, both of which depend on their knowledge that True had been previously accused of abusing a minor. Lewis asserts she was not aware of the prior allegation against True prior to 2014. (Doc. 193 at 6.)

         A right “accrues” when it comes into existence. Gabelli v. Sec. & Exch. Comm'n, 133 S.Ct. 1216, 1220 (2013). “Thus the ‘standard rule' is that a claim accrues when the plaintiff has a complete and present cause of action.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Under Vermont law, the date of accrual depends on “‘the point at which a plaintiff should have discovered the basic elements of a cause of action: an injury caused by the negligence or breach of duty of a particular defendant.'” Clarke v. Abate, 80 A.3d 578, 580-81 (Vt. 2013) (quoting Earle v. State, 743 A.2d 1101, 1108 (Vt. 1999)) (emphasis added). While the statute uses the word “act” in conjunction with “injury or condition, ” Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 12, § 522(a), the Vermont Supreme Court has “clarified that the word ‘act' . . . should not be interpreted to refer solely to the alleged act of sexual abuse, but could refer also to the alleged act of negligence by a third party.” Earle, 743 A.2d at 1104.

         Affording Lewis the benefit of all reasonable inferences, her negligence claims against the Congregation and Watchtower are timely. Her claims, which include a foreseeability element, did not accrue until she discovered their knowledge of the prior allegation of abuse against True. See Earle, 743 A.2d at 1103 (holding action did not accrue until plaintiff “knew at least that his injuries may have been a result of a breach of duty by defendant”). As she testified that she was not aware prior to her case of the other's abuse (Doc. 193-12 (Lewis Dep.) 173:4-14), and therefore could not have been aware of the Congregation or Watchtower's knowledge of the allegation, the filing of the complaint was timely. Id. at 1108 (noting “there was no reason for plaintiff to suspect that [defendant] owed him a duty at all until he ...

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