United States District Court, District of Columbia
N. McFADDEN, U.S.D.J.
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
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
And the Free Exercise Clause forbids the Court “from
interpreting standards of ecclesiastical conduct or examining
a church's financial affairs.” Id. at 17.
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.
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
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).
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
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.
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.
in the light most favorable to the Parishioners, some of
their claims are capable of resolution using secular legal
principles. 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.
Parishioners do not ask the Court to reinstate the
Church's former Board of Trustees. Id. at
40-43. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 ...