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Sibley v. St. Albans School

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

March 24, 2016

MONTGOMERY BLAIR SIBLEY, APPELLANT,
v.
ST. ALBANS SCHOOL, et al., APPELLEES

         Argued February 4, 2015.

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CAB-2202-10). (Hon. Judith N. Macaluso, Trial Judge).

         Montgomery Blair Sibley, Pro se.

         Laird Hart for appellees.

         Before FISHER and EASTERLY, Associate Judges, and RUIZ, Senior Judge. Opinion by Senior Judge Vanessa Ruiz.

          OPINION

         Vanessa Ruiz, Senior Judge:

         Appellant Montgomery Blair Sibley appeals from the trial court's grant of summary judgment dismissing his various claims against appellees St. Albans School, the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul (the National Cathedral), and the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation (PECF), and granting appellees' counterclaim and request for attorney's fees. We conclude that there is no error that warrants reversal and affirm.

         I. Facts

         The facts, as gleaned from the evidence presented by the parties for consideration on summary judgment are as follows. St. Albans School, a private, all-boys school, and the National Cathedral, both in the District of Columbia, operate under an umbrella corporation, PECF. In July 2007, appellant's then-10-year-old son, A.B.S., began to audition for the National Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys and he was offered a place as a Boy Chorister in 2008. One of the conditions of the offer was attendance at St. Albans School, and A.B.S.'s admission to the school was, in turn, contingent upon A.B.S.'s commitment to the chorister program through the eighth grade. Appellant was required to sign a letter accepting A.B.S.'s appointment to the choir " beginning in September 2008 until June 2013 or early voice change." A.B.S. joined the choir and enrolled at St. Albans School as a fifth-grader (Form B) for the 2008-09 school year. For his participation in the choir he received a stipend of $13,514, approximately forty-three percent of that year's school tuition. That year appellant's father signed the enrollment contract with St. Albans School and paid the remainder of A.B.S.'s tuition for the school year.[1]

         In February of 2009, appellant signed a contract re-enrolling A.B.S. in sixth grade (Form A) for the 2009-10 school year. By signing the contract, appellant promised to pay A.B.S.'s tuition for the year, less his choral stipend (that year, $8,907, or twenty-seven percent of tuition) and financial aid (in the amount of $6,000), leaving a balance of $17,990, with the initial payment due July 3, 2009. On July 16, 2009, appellant notified St. Albans that he would need to secure A.B.S.'s tuition from the estate of his father, who had recently died. On January 25, 2010, Gregory A. Parker, St. Albans School's Director of Finance, sent a letter informing appellant that A.B.S. would be expelled and not permitted to reenroll for the following year if the outstanding tuition was not paid. On February 17, in a telephone conversation, appellant informed Parker that he would be able to pay $2,000 in the near future and would pay the rest of the tuition once his father's estate was settled, but that the matter was in litigation because his father's will had not explicitly provided for A.B.S.'s tuition payments. During a telephone conversation on February 24, Parker offered that A.B.S. could complete the school year if appellant paid $2,000, but that he would not be allowed to reenroll for the following school year. On March 2, appellant contested this decision with Vance Wilson, the Headmaster of St. Albans School. Wilson responded in writing on March 10, and again informed appellant that A.B.S. would be allowed to finish the year if the $2,000 payment was received before spring break but that he would not be permitted to return for the 2010-11 school year if the outstanding tuition balance was not also paid in full.

         Appellant and St. Albans School exchanged several letters in March and April of 2010, attempting to establish a payment schedule based on the expected probate of appellant's father's estate. On March 17, St. Albans School agreed to reconsider its decision not to allow A.B.S. to re-enroll if it received confirmation by March 19 that the estate would pay the outstanding tuition balance by the end of March and the following year's tuition by July 5. On March 19, St. Albans received a check for $2,000 from A.B.S.'s step-grandmother. Appellant approved that the check be applied to payment of outstanding tuition to ensure that A.B.S. could finish the 2009-10 school year. Consequently, St. Albans School agreed to refrain from expelling A.B.S.; it also agreed to again modify the deadline for payment, upon receipt by April 8 of a letter on behalf of the estate confirming that settlement had been reached and that the estate would pay the remaining 2009-10 tuition ($15,990) by April 13, and the 2010-11 tuition (less any choir stipend and financial aid) by July 5. On March 25, appellant asked to meet with Parker to discuss additional flexibility in the payment schedule due to further delay in the probate proceedings. Appellant provided a copy of appellant's settlement agreement with the estate, which provided for payment of the outstanding tuition, and the following year's tuition by the dates set by St. Albans School. He also attached a copy of a letter from the estate's attorney setting out the steps necessary to obtain court approval and implement the settlement.[2] St. Albans School remained firm, however, and on April 1, Parker informed appellant that A.B.S. would not be able to return for the 2010-11 school year if the tuition (for both 2009-10 and 2010-11) was not paid in accordance with the previously established timetable.

         On April 2, appellant wrote a letter to Wilson, in which he reprised the situation and the impossibility due to legal requirements in the probate proceeding of a payment from his father's estate by the deadlines in Parker's letter. " [I]nvoking the last available option to me," appellant stated that he would institute litigation if St. Albans School did not agree " to wait the 45 or 50 days it will take to get the Florida Probate Court's approval for the payments that are due St. Albans." He attached a copy of the proposed complaint naming the School, the National Cathedral and PECF as defendants that, appellant said, would " open a Pandora's box of legal issues." On April 15, Parker responded on Wilson's behalf, stating that although A.B.S. would be permitted to complete the year, " [i]n light of the fact that the deadline for paying your son's long past-due tuition has come and gone," A.B.S. could not return for the following school year. On April 22, the Director of Music of the National Cathedral notified appellant that if A.B.S. was no longer enrolled at St. Albans School, he could not continue as a Boy Chorister the following term.

         On April 6, appellant filed the complaint he had previewed to Wilson in the Superior Court, raising several claims for declaratory judgment and damages related to the tuition dispute with St. Albans School; he filed an amended complaint on May 21. On May 27, appellees answered and filed a counterclaim seeking the balance of unpaid tuition for the 2009-10 school year and attorney's fees. On September 29, appellant moved to amend his first amended complaint to add a new count, which the trial court denied on June 1, 2011. Appellant and appellees each filed two motions for partial summary judgment. The trial court denied appellant's motions for summary judgment and granted appellees' motions for summary judgment, with the result that appellant's complaint was dismissed and appellees' counterclaim for unpaid tuition was granted. The trial court entered its final Order of Judgment on April 7, 2014, in which it granted attorney's fees to appellees. Appellant filed a timely notice of appeal.

         II. Analysis

         Appellant raises a number of issues on appeal, which we have grouped into categories: procedural claims, summary judgment, and judicial bias.

         A. Procedural Claims

         1. Amendment to Complaint

         Appellant contends that the trial court erroneously denied his request to amend his First Amended Complaint to add a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress, which he argues only became legally possible following this court's decision in Hedgepeth v. Whitman Walker Clinic, 22 A.3d 789, 816 (D.C. 2011) (en banc).

          We review a trial court's denial of a motion to amend a complaint for abuse of discretion. Taylor v. D.C. Water & Sewer Auth., 957 A.2d 45, 51 (D.C. 2008). Once a responsive pleading has been served, a party may amend a pleading only by consent of the adverse party or with leave of the court, which must permit the amendment if " justice so requires." Id. (quoting Sherman v. Adoption Ctr. of Washington, Inc., 741 A.2d 1031, 1037 (D.C. 1999)). In exercising discretion, the trial court considers several factors: " (1) the number of requests to amend made by the movant; (2) the length of time the case has been pending; (3) bad faith or dilatory tactics on the part of the movant; (4) the merit of the proffered pleading; and (5) prejudice to the nonmoving party." Id. (quoting Sherman, 741 A.2d at 1038).

         The trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying appellant's motion to amend because it considered " the merit of the proffered pleading" and properly concluded that appellant's proposed claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress did not have merit. In Hedgepeth, we articulated the elements of a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress where the allegedly injured person (here, A.B.S.) was not in the " zone of physical danger" that had previously been a required element of the cause of action. 22 A.3d at 799-800. To make out a claim under the principles laid out in Hedgepeth, appellant must establish that " (1) [appellees had] a relationship with [A.B.S.], or [had] undertaken an obligation to [A.B.S.], of a nature that necessarily implicates [A.B.S.'s] well-being, (2) there is an especially likely risk that [appellees'] negligence would cause serious emotional distress to [A.B.S.], and (3) negligent actions or omissions of [appellees] in breach of that obligation have, in fact, caused serious emotional distress to" A.B.S. Id. at 810-11.

         Appellant's proposed amended complaint failed to allege facts necessary to satisfy these required elements. There is no allegation to support the first prong: that appellees had the type of relationship with A.B.S. or had undertaken an obligation to A.B.S. that necessarily implicated his emotional well-being, as required by Hedgepeth. This is a determination of law for the court. See id. at 812-15 & n.39. The relationship between a student and his school or the musical director of his choir program is not enough, without more, to impose the predicate duty of care for a claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress. Moreover, in this case, the decision not to permit A.B.S. to re-enroll for 2010-11 that appellant claims was negligent and injured his son was taken by appellees pursuant to the 2009-10 enrollment contract appellant signed. Even though the existence of a contract between the parties does not automatically disqualify a claim in tort for negligence, contractual terms nonetheless govern the contracting parties' respective rights and responsibilities. See Hedgepeth, 22 A.3d at 816 n.42. The enrollment contract at issue in this case expressly disallows " special, incidental or consequential damages arising out of . . . any suspension or dismissal of the student, regardless of any notice of such damages." In addition, the proposed amendment to the complaint does not allege facts to support serious emotional distress of the type and degree required to sustain an action for negligent infliction of emotional distress, even if we assume that A.B.S. would have been understandably disappointed and hurt when he was unable to re-enroll at St. Albans School and continue to sing in the choir.[3] See id. at 817 (referring to " serious and verifiable" emotional distress that is " acute, enduring or life-altering" ). For these reasons, the trial court did not abuse discretion in denying appellant's motion to amend the complaint to add a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress.

         2. Discovery

         Appellant contends that the trial court also abused its discretion in limiting his ability to conduct discovery. Appellant filed a motion to compel production of " [a]ll Documents relating to the application for financial aid to Defendant St. Albans School on behalf of each student in Forms A, B, C, I and II for the school years 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 with redactions of identifying personal information." Appellees refused to comply on the ground that the documents requested were irrelevant and production would be unduly burdensome. The trial court denied appellant's motion, concluding that (1) the financial aid documents concerning other students were not reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence concerning the promises exchanged between appellant and appellees with respect to financial assistance for A.B.S., and (2) production of the requested documents would be unduly burdensome to appellees even if identifying information were redacted.

          To warrant reversal of the trial court's denial of a motion to compel discovery, the movant must show both that the trial court abused its discretion and that the denial caused prejudice. See Franco v. District of Columbia, 39 A.3d 890, 896 (D.C. 2012). A party is entitled to discover relevant admissible evidence and relevant information that " appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence." Super. Ct. Civ. R. 26 (b)(1). A trial court has broad discretion in considering motions to compel discovery and may weigh a variety of factors in reaching a decision. See Kay v. Pick, 711 A.2d 1251, 1256 (D.C. 1998). A request may be denied if it is overly broad or is " not warranted by [the] facts and circumstances of" the case. Phelan v. City of Mount Rainier, 805 A.2d 930, 942-44 (D.C. 2002). This court will reverse a trial court's decision only if it is " clearly unreasonable, arbitrary, or fanciful." Kay, 711 A.2d at 1256.

         Appellant argues that the trial court's decision was " unreasonable and arbitrary" because relevancy, for discovery purposes, is construed " most liberally," citing Dunn v. Evening Star Newspaper Co., 232 A.2d 293, 295 (D.C. 1967), and the financial aid documents he requested would help prove that, contrary to representations about the manner in which all students, including choristers, would be treated with regard to financial aid, " it was the practice of St. Albans School to not grant financial aid to Boy Choristers in the same amounts that non-Boy Choristers received." Appellant argues that the financial aid documents of other students are relevant to his claim that St. Albans School made four misrepresentations: (1) every student admitted to St. Albans School would be able to attend regardless of his family's financial situation; (2) a family's financial situation would not prevent a student from attending; (3) twenty-seven percent of students received financial aid, with an average amount of $21,053 in aid; and (4) the National Cathedral would pay choristers a stipend of forty-five percent of the annual tuition. Had St. Albans School provided to A.B.S. the " average" amount of aid plus the forty-five percent chorister stipend, A.B.S.'s tuition would have been fully covered. Instead, appellant argues, A.B.S. was " punished" for being a Boy Chorister because the stipend he received for his chorister duty was less than had been represented and was taken into account in determining the amount he would receive in financial aid. Appellant also argues that appellees offered no proof that production of the financial aid documents would be unduly burdensome.

         We conclude that the trial court did not abuse discretion in denying appellant's motion to compel discovery of other students' financial aid documents. Even assuming that the records or derivative evidence would be admissible, appellant does not explain how these documents would support his claim that A.B.S. was " punished financially" because his stipend as a Boy Chorister was taken into account in evaluating his application for financial aid. The financial aid documents appellant sought cannot prove that A.B.S. was " penalized" because, although appellant argues to the contrary, there is no admissible evidence that St. Albans School promised him that the chorister stipend would not be considered in awarding financial aid, see infra Part B.3.b (noting that appellant's evidence of this assertion is inadmissible hearsay). In fact, the evidence in the record is to the contrary as appellees have provided evidence, through the affidavit of the Director of Finance at St. Albans School, that " all sources of tuition payment, including chorister scholarships" are considered when reviewing financial aid applications, such that all families were treated the same in determining the basis on which financial aid awards were calculated. In short, the applications for financial aid and awards to other students would not prove or lead to evidence that A.B.S. was penalized and not treated like other students because his chorister stipend was considered a source of tuition payments in the evaluation of his request for financial aid.

         Additionally, there is scant reason to believe that the requested financial aid documents would support appellant's claim that four specific misrepresentations were made to him. Appellant's first two alleged misrepresentations are essentially the same: that St. Albans School falsely represented that the family's financial situation would not affect A.B.S.'s ability to attend St. Albans School once he was admitted. It is difficult to see how financial aid records that pertain to other students who were already attending the school would shed light on the alleged falsity of this statement as it pertained to A.B.S.'s family's financial situation. Appellant's second alleged misrepresentation--that twenty-seven percent of St. Albans School students received financial aid, with an average award of $21,053--is irrelevant to his ultimate claim; regardless of whether the financial aid records confirmed or discredited this figure, the average amount of financial aid awarded to students with varying financial resources would not prove appellant's overall claim of disparate treatment of A.B.S. because he was a Boy Chorister. Finally, the financial aid records of other students would not prove that, as appellant alleged, the National Cathedral falsely represented to appellant that A.B.S. would receive forty-five percent of tuition as an annual stipend for being a chorister.

         Considering the dubious relevance of the requested documents against the burden of redacting and risk of exposing confidential financial information of students' families in a small school community, the trial court did not abuse discretion in denying appellant's motion to compel production of St. Albans School's financial aid records.

         B. Summary Judgment

         1. Constitutionality of Summary Judgment

         Appellant makes a frontal challenge to summary judgment, contending that it is a denial of the constitutional right to a jury trial. His argument is that because a jury has the right to determine " both law and fact" in civil trials, summary judgment, as a means of final adjudication, is unconstitutional under the Seventh Amendment. Appellant is wrong about the role of the jury and his legal argument is without merit.[4]

          " [T]he constitutionality of summary judgment has long been settled" by the Supreme Court. Mixon v. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth., 959 A.2d 55, 58 (D.C. 2008) (citing Sartor v. Ark. Nat. Gas Corp., 321 U.S. 620, 627, 64 S.Ct. 724, 88 L.Ed. 967 (1944), and Fidelity & Deposit Co. v. United States, 187 U.S. 315, 320, 23 S.Ct. 120, 47 L.Ed. 194 (1902)). The jury is a finder of fact; it does not determine the law. The jury is charged with applying the law, as instructed by the judge, to the facts found by the jury. Consequently, if there is no material fact in dispute, the parties do " not suffer injury to any interest protected by the Seventh Amendment." Id.

          An appellate court reviews the trial court's grant of summary judgment de novo, using the same standard the trial court uses to evaluate the motion. See Young v. U-Haul Co. of the District of Columbia, 11 A.3d 247, 249 (D.C. 2011). Summary judgment is proper if " the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Id. (quoting Bruno v. Western Union Fin. Servs., Inc., 973 A.2d 713, 717 (D.C. 2009)); Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56 (c). The movant has the initial burden to demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, but once the movant has done so, the burden shifts to the non-movant to show a factual dispute, by presenting admissible evidence of a prima facie case to support his cause of action. See id. Here, the trial court did not deprive appellant of his constitutional right to a jury trial because, as we discuss infra, there were no material facts in dispute and appellees were entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.

         2. Appellant's Claims for Declaratory Judgment

         a) PECF's Corporate Status

         Appellant contends that the trial court was without authority to enforce the payment provision in the 2009-10 re-enrollment contract because PECF is not validly incorporated and therefore its actions, being ultra vires, have no legal effect. His argument is that because PECF was originally chartered by Congress for the purpose of " promot[ing] religion," its government charter is prohibited by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and, a fortiori, Congress did not have the authority to create PECF. The trial court denied appellant's first motion for partial summary judgment, which sought to establish that PECF was not validly incorporated, and granted appellees' motion for summary judgment on that claim, concluding that no issue of material fact existed regarding PECF's incorporation status and that appellees were entitled to judgment as a matter of law on that issue.

         The trial court did not err in granting summary judgment to appellees on the issue of PECF's incorporation status because the evidence of record establishes that PECF is properly incorporated as a nonprofit corporation under the law of the District of Columbia. There is therefore no need to address appellant's First Amendment challenge, based on PECF's original congressional charter. Although PECF was originally chartered by Congress in 1893, Act of Jan. 6, 52 Cong. Ch. 20, 27 Stat. 414 (1893), the evidence of record is that it was re-incorporated in 1998 under the District of Columbia Nonprofit Corporation Act (Act), D.C. Code § § 29-401 et seq. (2012 Repl.).[5] The Act allows for the incorporation of nonprofit organizations for " any lawful purpose," D.C. Code § 29-403.01, including religious organizations or organizations with religious purposes. D.C. Code § 29-401.02 (4) & (32); -403.01.[6] Once the articles of incorporation are filed, a business entity is incorporated under the Act. D.C. Code § 29-402.03 (b) (" The filing of the articles of incorporation . . . is conclusive proof that the incorporators satisfied all conditions precedent to incorporation . . . ." ). Appellees submitted Parker's affidavit, dated April 28, 2010, which attested to PECF's incorporation under the Act in 1998 and attached PECF's Certificate of Acceptance of the terms of the Act.[7] Appellant has not presented evidence controverting that PECF is incorporated under the Act. Consequently, the evidence of record supports that PECF is a valid District of Columbia nonprofit corporation. The trial court therefore properly granted summary judgment in favor of appellees because there was no disputed issue of fact regarding PECF's corporate status, and appellees were entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the question of whether they may enter into and enforce contracts.[8] See D.C. Code § 29-403.02 (2012 Repl.) (setting out that powers of nonprofit corporation are " the same powers as an individual to do all things necessary or convenient to carry out its affairs" ).

         b. Harriet Lane Johnston's Bequest

         Appellant contends that St. Albans School was required to permit choristers to attend the school without paying tuition, pursuant to the bequest of Harriet Lane Johnston that provided for the establishment of the School. Appellant contends that the 1903 Codicil to Ms. Johnston's Will requires the School to offer free education to all choir boys that serve the National Cathedral. The Codicil states:

Whereas, by a codicil to my said will, the said codicil being dated June tenth, 1899, I have bequeathed to the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation the sum of two hundred thousand dollars ($200,000.), upon certain trusts in said codicil set forth; Now I hereby modify said bequest by increasing the same to the sum of three hundred thousand dollars ($300,000.) and by these further provisions, namely: That not more than one half of the said sum, that is not exceeding one hundred and fifty thousand dollars ($150,000) shall be used for construction of the building, which is to be known as the " Lane Johnston Building" the site for which and the necessary appurtenant grounds for which are to be provided by the said Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation, and the balance of said sum of three hundred thousand dollars ($300,000.) not used for the construction of the said building shall be invested by said Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation as an Endowment fund to be known as the " Lane Johnston Fund" and the income to be used for the maintenance of said school for boys. While not restricting the general objects of said School it is my wish that the said school shall be so conducted and the said Fund so applied as specifically to provide for the free maintenance, education and training of Choir-boys, primarily those in the service of the Cathedral. Reposing special confidence in the discretion in this regard of the Rev. Philip M. Rhinelander, I ...

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