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Ambellu v. Re'ese Adbarat Debre Selam Kidist Mariam

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 21, 2019

ALEMEWORK AMBELLU et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
RE'ESE ADBARAT DEBRE SELAM KIDIST MARIAM, THE ETHIOPIAN ORTHODOX TEWHADO RELIGION CHURCH et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          TREVOR N. McFADDEN, U.S.D.J.

         For years, two rival factions have fought bitterly for control over the Re'ese Adbarat Debre Selam Kidist Mariam Ethiopian Orthodox Tewhado Church. After starting in the local courts, this fight has now been brought here by dozens of former parishioners (the “Parishioners”). They claim that a group of current members and priests conspired to take control of the Church, its operations, and its assets. Alleging violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”), 18 U.S.C. §§ 1961 et seq., and related tortious acts, the Parishioners filed this suit against the Church and dozens of its members (collectively, the “Current Leaders”).

         The Current Leaders have moved to dismiss these claims. They argue that the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause prohibits the Court from resolving this dispute, as it involves inherently religious matters. The Court agrees in part. It is barred from hearing some of the Parishioners' arguments and will dismiss these for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The Current Leaders also contend that the Parishioners have failed to plead sufficiently their RICO allegations. Again, the Court agrees, and it will dismiss the Parishioners' RICO allegations for failure to state a claim. And it declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the Parishioners' remaining claims. The Court will therefore grant the Current Leaders' motion to dismiss.

         I.

         The origins of this dispute are unclear. The Parishioners suggest that, “beginning in around 2012, various controversies over Church governance arose.” Am. Compl. 32, ECF No. 6. Akilu Habte, one of the Current Leaders, alleges that he and other Church members had “serious concerns about the misconduct of several of the [Church's] Board of Trustees members.” Id., Ex. A, ECF No. 6-1, at 2.[1] The Board members, Mr. Habte contends, “remained on the Board beyond the limits of their terms, ” “failed to conduct elections in 2012 or 2013, in violation of the [Church's] bylaws, ” terminated employees and clergy members without cause or process, and impermissibly altered the Church's bylaws. Id. at 2-4.

         Perhaps because of these concerns, “in 2013 a number of other members of the congregation formed [a] Committee, led by Defendant Akilu Habte, which decided to take over control of the Church.” Am. Compl. 32. They allegedly did so without the Parishioners' knowledge. Id. Over the next two years, the Parishioners contend, the Committee “held a number of regular meetings for the express purpose of conspiring to devise a scheme to obtain control of the money and property of the Church by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations and promises.” Id.

         Then, at the end of Church services on a Sunday in 2015, Mr. Habte allegedly “announced that the serving members of the Church's Board of Trustees . . . were dismissed.” Id. The Parishioners believe that, “through false or fraudulent pretenses and representations, ” Mr. Habte appointed an interim Board that assumed control of the Church. Id. at 32-33. Since this appointment, the interim and current Boards have purportedly denied the Parishioners access to the Church and its assets. Id. at 33.

         The Parishioners argue that the Current Leaders used false or fraudulent pretenses to obtain control of the Church and its financial assets. Id. at 36. They “provided broad and repeated notice to all Church Members” of the Committee's “intention to hold a vote to dismiss the elected members of the Board of Trustees” and replace them with an interim Board. Id. But no such vote occurred. See Id. at 38. Instead, the Committee members, “along with other groups within the Church, ” allegedly decided to dismiss the Board unilaterally and replace it with an interim Board. Id.

         These and other actions, according to the Parishioners, constitute a conspiracy to commit civil RICO violations by wresting control over the Church through fraud. Id. at 36-43. The Parishioners also allege negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, conversion, unjust enrichment, negligence, and breach of fiduciary duties. See id. at 44-55.

         The Current Leaders have moved to dismiss these claims for two reasons. First, they contend that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the case. The First Amendment, they suggest, bars judicial resolution of the parties' fight because the Court's review “would require an examination of ecclesiastical cognizance and Church governance.” Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss (“Defs.' Mot.”), ECF No. 9, at 16.[2] And the Free Exercise Clause forbids the Court “from interpreting standards of ecclesiastical conduct or examining a church's financial affairs.” Id. at 17.

         Second, the Current Leaders contend that the Parishioners have failed to plead sufficiently their RICO claims. Id. at 19. They argue that allegations of a conspiracy to commit fraud are subject to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b). Id. Rule 9(b) requires that the “circumstances constituting fraud or mistake” be stated “with particularity.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 9(b). The requisite particularity, the Current Leaders urge, is lacking from the Parishioners allegations. Defs.' Mot. at 19. And even if Rule 9(b) does not apply, they argue, the Parishioners' claims of fraud “do not constitute a pattern of racketeering” as required by the RICO statute. Id. These claims therefore warrant dismissal. See id. at 27-29. The Current Leaders also contend that if the Court dismisses the RICO allegations, it should dismiss the Parishioners' remaining claims and decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction. Id. at 30-31.

         The parties submitted thorough briefing on these issues and presented oral arguments. The Parishioners' claims and the Current Leaders' Motion to Dismiss are now ripe for review.

         II.

         Before it may turn to the merits of the Parishioners' claims, the Court must first confirm its subject matter jurisdiction over the case. The Current Leaders argue that the First Amendment prohibits judicial resolution of the parties' dispute. Defs.' Mot. at 16. They thus seek dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1).

         To survive a motion to dismiss under this rule, the Parishioners bear the burden of establishing that the Court has subject matter jurisdiction over their claims. See Moms Against Mercury v. FDA, 483 F.3d 824, 828 (D.C. Cir. 2007). In conducting its review, the Court may consider “the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts plus the [C]ourt's resolution of disputed facts.” Herbert, 974 F.2d at 197. It accepts as true all factual allegations in the complaint. Wright v. Foreign Serv. Grievance Bd., 503 F.Supp.2d 163, 170 (D.D.C. 2007). It also gives the Parishioners “the benefit of all favorable inferences that can be drawn from the alleged facts.” Id.

         At this early stage, the Parishioners have partially met their burden of establishing the Court's jurisdiction. Generally, the First Amendment bars courts from adjudicating matters of “ecclesiastical cognizance.” See Serbian E. Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 698 (1976). To allow otherwise would create a “substantial danger that the State will become entangled in essentially religious controversies” or that it will “intervene on behalf of groups espousing particular doctrinal beliefs.” Id. at 709.

         But there are narrow exceptions. Courts may resolve church property disputes to which they can apply “neutral principles of law.” Presbyt'n Church in the U.S. v. Mary Eliz. Blue Hull Mem. Presbyt'n Church, 393 U.S. 440, 449 (1969). And the Supreme Court has suggested that “marginal” civil court review may be appropriate where fraud or collusion underlies the actions of a church or its members. See Milivojevich, 426 U.S. at 711-13.

         Examined in the light most favorable to the Parishioners, some of their claims are capable of resolution using secular legal principles.[3] Counts I-III of the First Amended Complaint, for instance, allege civil RICO violations. Am. Compl. at 40-43. The Parishioners argue that the Current Leaders illegally took control of the Church and its assets. They purportedly did so by falsely “promis[ing] that a vote to dismiss the Serving Board would be held.” Id. at 38. No. vote occurred, and the Current Leaders instead dismissed the Board through “unilateral action.” Id. at 39. They thus took “effective control of the Church through false or fraudulent pretenses.” Id.

         The Parishioners do not ask the Court to reinstate the Church's former Board of Trustees. Id. at 40-43.[4] Nor do they seek resolution of any questions about the control or leadership of the Church. Id. Instead, they seek money damages under the RICO provisions for civil remedies, 18 U.S.C. § 1964. Id.

         As pleaded, these claims do not “turn on the resolution by civil courts of controversies over religious doctrine and practice.” Presbyt'n Church in the U.S., 393 U.S. at 449. Rather, they involve the “narrow rubrics of ‘fraud' or ‘collusion'” that may permit “marginal civil court review” when “church tribunals act in bad faith for secular purposes.” Milivojevich, 426 U.S. at 713. At this stage of the litigation, proceeding to the merits of these claims would not improperly entangle the Court in an essentially religious controversy.

         Counts XI and XII, which allege breaches of fiduciary duties, also survive the Current Leaders' jurisdictional challenge. The Parishioners claim that the Church is a “non-profit member corporation organized under the laws of the District of Columbia.” Am. Compl. at 27. Under D.C. law, a board of trustees may owe a fiduciary duty of loyalty to the corporation and its members. See, e.g., Willens v. 2720 Wis. Ave. Co-op. Ass'n, Inc., 844 A.2d 1126, 1136 (D.C. 2004). Both Counts XI and XII allege a breach of this duty by the Church's new Board. Am. Compl. at 51-53.

         These claims could, in theory, be resolved through application of neutral principles of corporate law. See, e.g., Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 607-08 (1979) (discussing the potential resolution of a church dispute using a neutral “presumptive rule of majority representation”). These principles may include, for example, generally applicable rules about when a fiduciary duty of loyalty is owed or whether a corporation can remove the duty of loyalty through its charter or bylaws. So considering the merits of these claims at the motion to dismiss stage would not violate the First Amendment.

         The Parishioners' remaining allegations, however, must be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. Counts IV-VII allege negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Am. Compl. at 44-47. Count XIII alleges negligence. Id. at 54. Central to these claims is the Parishioners' contention that the “effective denial” “of [Parishioners'] ability to worship at the Church proximately caused the [Parishioners] serious and verifiable emotional distress.” See id. at 44-47.

         Whether someone may worship at a church is plainly a matter of ecclesiastical cognizance. See Burgess v. Rock Creek Baptist Church, 734 F.Supp. 30, 33 (D.D.C. 1990) (“[T]his Court must not interfere with the fundamental ecclesiastical concern of determining who is and who is not [a] Church member.”). Indeed “exclusion from a religious community, is not a harm for which courts can grant a remedy.” Id. To hold otherwise would risk entanglement in a fundamentally religious endeavor-defining and applying the requirements of church membership. Excommunication has been practiced by churches since biblical times. See 1 Corinthians 5:13 (NIV) (“Expel the wicked person from among you.”). It is not for civil courts to question the propriety of ecclesiastical discipline.

         During oral argument, the Parishioners' counsel suggested that “our state law claims are based upon a very simple definition of [Church] membership that does not really go to the [Church's] bylaws.” Hr'g Tr. 50:23-25. Instead, these claims invoke “membership, the way it has been practiced, ” which “involved the right to vote on budgets” and which “means ownership” in the Church. Id. at 50:25-51:3. But without resort to plausibly secular governance documents-like an entity's bylaws-the Court is even less convinced that it can identify neutral principles of law that it can use to define the Parishioners' membership rights in the ...


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