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11/03/92 SHIRLEY ROBERTS-DOUGLAS v. JOHN L. MEARES

November 3, 1992

SHIRLEY ROBERTS-DOUGLAS, ET AL., APPELLANTS
v.
JOHN L. MEARES, ET AL., APPELLEES; EVANGEL TEMPLE, INC., ET AL., APPELLANTS V. SHIRLEY ROBERTS-DOUGLAS, ET AL., APPELLEES



Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; (Hon. Gladys Kessler, Motions Judge); (Hon. Frederick H. Weisberg, Trial Judge). Originally Published at 615 A.2d 1114and Withdrawn from the Bound Volume.

Rehearing Granted April 23, 1993; Supplemental Opinion Withdrawn from the Bound Volume by Order of the Court.

Before Terry, Schwelb, and Wagner, Associate Judges. Opinion for the court by Associate Judge Schwelb. Opinion Concurring in part and Dissenting in part by Associate Judge Wagner.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schwelb

SCHWELB, Associate Judge:

I

THE CONTROVERSY

This case involves allegations by the plaintiffs, nine former parishioners of the Evangel Temple, formerly located in northeast Washington, of fraudulent and coercive conduct on the part of leaders of the church in connection with fund-raising for a proposed new facility. In their complaint, as amended, the plaintiffs claimed that the defendants, who include the Temple, its bishop (John L. Meares), and two of Bishop Meares' sons, fraudulently induced them to contribute large sums of money to the defendants' building funds by misrepresenting the Temple's financial condition and the individual defendants' salaries, as well as the need for and intended purpose of the contributions. According to the plaintiffs, the defendants then converted some of the funds so obtained to their own personal use.

The plaintiffs further alleged that the defendants abused the positions of trust and confidence which they held as ministers and unduly influenced the plaintiffs and other parishioners into contributing many thousands of dollars, far in excess of anything most of them could reasonably afford. The defendants' coercive tactics allegedly included repeated threats of divine retribution against those who failed to pledge or contribute sufficient amounts, as well as various types of harassment, e.g., singling out perceived delinquents by name and requiring them to run a humiliating gauntlet before deacons and members in good standing. In order to raise funds, according to some of the plaintiffs, the defendants incited parishioners to submit simultaneous applications for loans to several institutions without disclosing to any lender that other applications were also being made.

In their pleadings and in pretrial depositions, the defendants denied that they engaged in any fraud, coercion, or misappropriation, and contended that their conduct was protected by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. They also maintained that several of the plaintiffs were biased against them as a result of disputes over religious doctrine.

Prior to trial, the plaintiffs propounded broad interrogatories and requests for production of documents to the defendants. The defendants objected to significant portions of the discovery, and the plaintiffs moved to compel. The trial Judge granted the motion in part, but declined to compel responses to those discovery requests which related primarily to the financial condition of the individual defendants.

The defendants subsequently filed motions for summary judgment directed to all of the counts in the plaintiffs' complaint. The trial Judge granted partial summary judgment as to the "undue influence" claim, in which the plaintiffs alleged that each of the defendants had occupied a position of trust and confidence vis-a-vis their parishioners and had abused that position by effectively coercing contributions from them. *fn1 The trial Judge denied the defendants' motion for summary judgment with respect to the claims of fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress, holding that the plaintiffs had raised genuine issues of material fact and that if the allegations in the complaint were proved, the defendants' conduct would not be protected by the First Amendment.

The case then proceeded to a non-jury trial on the fraud claims, which had survived the defendants' pretrial motions. At the Conclusion of the plaintiffs' case, the Judge delivered a comprehensive oral opinion in which he granted judgment in favor of the defendants pursuant to Super. Ct. Civ. R. 41 (b). Summarizing the testimony which he had heard and credited, including accounts of the hardships which the plaintiffs had endured in attempting to meet the defendants' demands, the Judge stated that their evidence had "won my heart but not my head." The Judge continued:

These plaintiffs are unquestionably all honest, sincere, and decent people. They come from different backgrounds and circumstances, but it seems to me at least what unites them in this case, and what their common denominator is, is a deep abiding faith in God and, formerly at least, in their church.

It is impossible for me to listen to the testimony and not to feel tremendous sympathy for what they have gone through.

After detailing the contributions made to the Temple by individual plaintiffs and the financial sacrifices which they had felt constrained to make, *fn2 the Judge recognized that it was his obligation to decide the case on the basis of the law and the evidence rather than considerations of sympathy. With apparent reluctance, he ruled for the defendants.

The Judge found, among other things, that the plaintiffs had not proved by clear and convincing evidence that the defendants had misappropriated or diverted any funds or had made any false representations of fact upon which the plaintiffs had reasonably relied in contributing their money. He concluded that some of the statements which the parishioners described as fraudulent -- e.g., that God would punish those who failed to make adequate contributions -- were protected by the First Amendment. The Judge also held that the plaintiffs had failed to make out a case of intentional infliction of emotional distress, emphasizing that no intent on the part of the defendants to cause such distress had been proved.

On appeal, the plaintiffs contend that the motions Judge erroneously restricted their discovery and thereby prevented them from proving their fraud claim. They further maintain that the trial Judge erred in granting the defendants' motion for summary judgment on the undue influence claim and in granting judgment for the defendants on the emotional distress claim at the Conclusion of the plaintiffs' case. We agree in part with the plaintiffs' first contention, and direct that the Judge reconsider, in the light of this opinion, the denial of certain portions of the requested discovery. The Judge should then reappraise the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the fraud claims in light of any new proffer by the plaintiffs, based on any new responses by the defendants to such discovery and determine if the record should be reopened. With respect to the plaintiffs' second contention, we agree with the trial court's rejection, on these facts, of the claim of a "tort" of undue influence. We hold, however, that a gift inter vivos, like a testamentary Disposition, may be set aside on equitable grounds on the basis of undue influence. In that connection, we reverse the order granting partial summary judgment on the undue influence count against plaintiffs Mae and Daniel H. Harrison, but affirm the summary judgment entered against the remaining seven plaintiffs. We also affirm the trial Judge's entry, at the Conclusion of the plaintiffs' case, of judgment in favor of the defendants on the claims by all plaintiffs of intentional infliction of emotional distress. *fn3

II

THE FACTS *fn4

Evangel Temple is a District of Columbia corporation organized for religious and educational purposes. It is governed by a Presbytery composed of ministers and headed by Bishop Meares. The Presbytery holds title to all church property and governs the religious and temporal affairs of the church through a Council comprised of all elders, ministers, and deacons.

The activities of Evangel Temple are financed largely by the members of the congregation, for financial contributions to support the Temple's activities are an integral obligation of membership under the Temple's corporate charter and by-laws. *fn5 Members not only tithe, by contributing a set proportion of their income to the church, but are also expected to donate to designated projects. In 1975, the Temple was able to establish its home on Rhode Island Avenue in northeast Washington by means of donations from its members.

By the mid-1980's, according to the defendants, the membership of Evangel Temple had grown substantially, and a larger facility was needed for worship and for various new programs. Between July and September of 1985, the church elders began organizing a building fund designed to enable them to construct a large new facility in Largo, Maryland. This facility was to include not only a new church, but also television facilities, a school, a gymnasium, and homes for church leaders. Most or all of the plaintiffs participated in the fund-raising programs which followed.

The controversy in this case centers upon the means used by church leaders, and by Bishop Meares and his two sons in particular, to obtain contributions to the building fund. The plaintiffs have characterized the defendants' fund-raising techniques as a "campaign of humiliation, insult, harassment and intimidation against them." They have alleged that contributions were secured by coercion and undue influence, and that the defendants misrepresented the financial circumstances of the Temple and of the individual defendants, the size of the contributions made by church leaders to the building funds, and the use which was to he made of the money. *fn6

In connection with their allegations of coercive tactics, the plaintiffs claimed that they were told by church leaders that Bishop Meares represented the "voice of God," and that what he said should not be questioned. Claiming divine inspiration for his statements, Bishop Meares announced that God required each parishioner who was gainfully employed to give $5,000 to the building fund within five months. *fn7 When this doctrine was first presented to the deacons at a special retreat, they were given thirty minutes to decide whether they would pledge the required amount. Bishop Meares threatened that if they did not do so, God would curse them, kill them, or "turn His back" on them.

According to the plaintiffs, parishioners who had not given enough money to the building funds were publicly identified by name during church services and were made to stand and to walk a gauntlet in disgrace between two lines of deacons. Those parishioners who had met their pledges were directed to "lay hands" upon those who had not as the latter passed through the gauntlet, and each delinquent member was required, when he or she reached the end of the line, to make a public pledge to give the amount demanded. Anyone who declined to do so would be ordered to leave the church, in disgrace, by the front door.

According to the plaintiffs, the church leaders had little regard for the practical ability of their parishioners to make the contributions required of them. The plaintiffs alleged that the Bishop, crying and emotional, announced that in light of God's will, church leaders were not going to listen to people complaining about not being able to obtain the money. Those parishioners who claimed to be unable to contribute the amounts demanded of them were admonished that it was the will of God that they "borrow or sell," i.e., borrow large sums of money from as many lenders as possible, or sell all of their worldly possessions, including their homes if necessary. One of the plaintiffs, Mrs. Mae Harrison, swore that Donald Meares visited her home and personally insisted that she and her husband, plaintiff Daniel N. Harrison, sell it. With respect to the directive that parishioners borrow money in order to meet their pledges, one of the elders insisted that loans should be obtained regardless of the interest rate, because "God will take care of that." *fn8

The pressures allegedly placed on the plaintiffs and others to obtain the amounts demanded by church leaders included directives to apply for multiple loans. Parishioners were told to go to as many lending institutions as possible to obtain loans with which to meet their pledges; they were ordered not to inform any of the lenders that similar loan applications had been made elsewhere. Bishop Meares publicly commended one couple for obtaining six different loans on the same day, thus collecting $20,000.

Deacons of the church, including the Douglases and the Harrisons, who did not make the required contributions, or who questioned what was being done with the money raised, were threatened with dismissal and excommunication. Several parishioners were publicly denounced. Mrs. Roberts-Douglas related that after she requested an accounting, she was summoned before a church tribunal in the middle of the night. She alleged that at this nocturnal proceeding she was excoriated for her defiance of church directives and threatened with expulsion and damnation. A little over a month later, Mrs. Roberts-Douglas and her husband were expelled from membership in the Temple.

Most of the parishioners, according to the plaintiffs, were of modest means, and the amounts pledged and contributed by them were out of proportion to what they could reasonably afford. *fn9 Mrs. Roberts-Douglas alleged that she, her husband, and their children together contributed $24,000 to the building fund over and above their regular tithes and other payments to the church. Mr. and Mrs. Harrison -- the couple whom Elder Donald Meares had importuned in their kitchen to sell their home -- did not sell, but instead obtained a second mortgage on their house to raise $7,900, which they contributed to the fund. This required them to struggle to make the additional monthly payment of $298 on their home mortgage. Ms. Katherine Cogdell, a registered nurse, allegedly contributed $2,000 to the building fund. Ms. Gloria Patty, not having any other source of funds available, is alleged to have included child support checks in her $2,000 contribution to the building fund. Kenneth and Frances Norris contributed $10,439 and, in the process, went into such dire financial circumstances that Mr. Norris had to begin working 100 hours a week. Ms. Mary Lou Moreno, who had a salary of only $10,000 a year, testified at her deposition that she felt so pressured and "brainwashed" by the defendants' demands for money, which were accompanied by repeated threats of divine retribution, that she pledged $5,000 to the building fund. Unable to obtain loans to pay that amount, she turned over her entire paycheck for a two-week period.

The defendants have provided an entirely different account of the disputed events. They have denied that they engaged in any fraudulent behavior or that they unduly influenced any parishioner to pledge or contribute to the building fund. Bishop Meares testified on deposition that those who contributed "came gladly, joyfully, and said yes, it is God's will for me to give $5,000, $10,000, $20,000 and $30,000 and $50,000 and $100,000. . . . And our people are in their right mind, okay. So people in their right mind don't jump up and joyfully pledge money like that without a conviction." One of the bishop's sons, Elder Donald Meares, testified that

I don't think as a pastor we manipulate or dominate anyone. Our responsibility was to give direction as to what we believed. . . . I would like to add that there are those people in our congregation that have not [given $5,000], and that's their choice, as well as there were a lot of people that made what I and the elders considered very unrealistic pledges that we had to counsel, that they were unrealistic, why the figure was high in total as it was, because some people I think pledged out of an emotional basis.

This was how the battle lines were drawn when the Judge considered the motion for summary judgment.

III

THE CLAIM OF FRAUD AND THE DISCOVERY ISSUE

A. General Considerations

In his oral decision granting judgment to the defense on the plaintiffs' claim of fraud, the trial Judge analyzed that claim as embracing four separate categories of fraudulent misrepresentation. *fn10 After discussing in some detail the evidence applicable to each category, the Judge concluded that the plaintiffs had failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendants had engaged in any kind of fraud. On appeal, the plaintiffs do not challenge the Judge's ruling that the evidence of fraud was insufficient, *fn11 but contend that they were effectively precluded from proving certain of these claims because the motions Judge had erroneously denied their motion to compel discovery. We agree with the plaintiffs regarding the relevance of some of the discovery, but disagree with them as to the proper remedy.

Before trial, the plaintiffs served the defendants with interrogatories and with several requests for production of documents. The defendants objected to a substantial number of the plaintiffs' requests and refused to comply with them. The plaintiffs then filed a motion to compel discovery. On November 3, 1987, the motions Judge entered an order granting the plaintiffs' motion in part, "subject to a confidentiality agreement to be worked out between counsel." By implication, the motions Judge denied the motion to compel discovery as to the remaining items. The plaintiffs now appeal from portions of this partial denial of their requested discovery. *fn12

In order to understand the contentions of the parties with respect to the discovery issue, it is necessary to distinguish the materials as to which discovery was ordered, which we will call Category A, and those as to which it was implicitly denied, which we will call Category B. Category A included all financial statements of Evangel Temple, all records reflecting the receipt and expenditure of church funds, the amount and purpose of each expenditure and the person to whom it was paid, the identities of the members of Evangel Temple, the number and identities of persons making pledges to the building funds, the amounts pledged, all requests by contributors for return of their money, and the identities of financial institutions at which Evangel Temple deposited its money. Category B included information relating to the financial condition of each individual defendant.

In her written order, the Judge gave no indication as to why she had denied the motion with respect to information in Category B. The defendants contend, however, that her decision should be sustained for three reasons:

1. the information sought was relevant only to the issue of punitive damages, and its production could therefore properly be deferred until after a determination of liability:

2. the plaintiffs were allegedly attempting to try their case in the press, and would have improperly publicized any information secured through discovery regarding the individual defendants' financial affairs; and

3. the plaintiffs failed to examine the documents in Category A which the defendants did produce for inspection.

We address each of these contentions in turn.

B. Relevance to the Subject Matter.

The information regarding the financial condition of the individual defendants was concededly relevant to a remedial issue, namely, the amount of punitive damages that should be awarded if liability for such damages were imposed. See, e.g., Robinson v. Sarisky, 535 A.2d 901, 907 (D.C. 1988). Indeed, the Judge ruled that this information would have to be disclosed if the plaintiffs established liability. We hold, however, that the significance of the requested information was not limited to punitive damages; it was also relevant to the issue whether the defendants had engaged in fraudulent misrepresentation. *fn13

In general, parties may obtain discovery regarding any matter, not privileged, which is relevant to the subject matter of the action. Super. Ct. Civ. R. 26 (b); Dunn v. Evening Star Newspaper Co., 232 A.2d 293, 295 (D.C. 1967). Rule 26 (b) specifically provides that it is no ground for objection that the matter sought will be inadmissible at trial, if it appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. "Relevancy to the subject matter is construed most liberally, to the point that discovery should be granted where there is any possibility that the information sought may be relevant to the subject matter of the action." Dunn, supra, 232 ...


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