United States District Court, District of Columbia
N. MCFADDEN, U.S.D.J.
Plaintiffs are former parishioners (the
“Parishioners”) of the Re'ese Adbarat Debre
Selam Kidist Mariam Church. They claim that a group of
current members and clergy (the “Current
Leaders”) conspired to take control of the Church, its
operations, and its assets in violation of the Racketeer
Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act
(“RICO”), 18 U.S.C. §§ 1961 et
seq., and related torts. The Court granted the Current
Leaders' Motion to Dismiss, finding, among other things,
that the Amended Complaint failed to adequately plead RICO
violations and that the Free Exercise Clause barred
adjudication of other fundamentally religious matters.
See Ambellu v. Re'ese Adbarat Debre Selam Kidist
Mariam, 387 F.Supp.3d 71 (D.D.C. 2019) (Ambellu
Court now must decide whether the proposed Second Amended
Complaint (“SAC”) meets the pleading requirements
to move forward. Concluding that the SAC does not fix the
failures of the original complaint, the Court will deny the
Parishioners' Motion for Leave to File. The Court will
also deny the Parishioners' alternative request for
limited jurisdictional discovery, and for the reasons below,
the case will be dismissed.
Ambellu I, the Court outlined the relevant history
of the Church dispute. See Id. at 76-77. In short,
the Parishioners allege that for two years a committee of
congregants “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.” SAC, ECF No. 26-3, ¶ 176. Their
planning culminated at the end of church services one Sunday
in 2015, when the leader of the committee allegedly
“announced that the serving members of the Church's
Board of Trustees . . . were dismissed.” Id.
¶ 177. The Parishioners argue that, “through false
or fraudulent pretenses and representations, ” the
Current Leaders appointed an interim Board that assumed
control of the Church and has denied the Parishioners access
to the Church and its assets ever since. Id. ¶
response to Ambellu I, the Parishioners have pleaded
additional facts hoping to establish a “pattern of
racketeering activity” under RICO. See 18
U.S.C. § 1962. And they have provided the Church's
Articles of Incorporation and two versions of its By-Laws to
identify “neutral principles of law” the Court
can apply without violating the First Amendment. See
Pls.' Ex. B-D, ECF No. 26-3 at 69-132; Presbyt'n
Church in the U.S. v. Mary Eliz. Blue Hull Mem. Presbyt'n
Church, 393 U.S. 440, 449 (1969). The Current Leaders
renew their arguments from Ambellu I that the claims
must be dismissed. Defs.' Mem. Opp. to Pls.' Mot. for
Leave to File (“Defs.' Opp.”), ECF No. 27, at
1. They contend that the “[SAC] presents nothing
new” and oppose the Motion for Leave to File as
“futile” because it cannot survive a motion to
RICO, the Current Leaders argue that the SAC still fails to
satisfy Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 9(b), which
requires that “a party must state with particularity
circumstances constituting fraud or mistake.”
See Defs.' Opp. at 2-3. They argue that not one
of the “forty-one amended paragraphs provides any
additional details concerning ‘any false statements
transmitted using the Postal Service, radio, wires, or
television,' as [Ambellu I] explained was
necessary.” Id. at 3. And as they argued
previously, the Current Leaders claim that even if Rule 9(b)
does not apply, the Parishioners' claims of fraud do not
show “the continuity required to establish a pattern of
racketeering activity.” Id. at 4.
the tort claims, the Current Leaders maintain that the Court
lacks neutral criteria to adjudicate the dispute without
“delving into the Church's practices and
customs” that are “close to the core of
ecclesiastical concern.” Id. at 5-6 (quoting
Ambellu I, 387 F.Supp.3d at 81). The Current Leaders
argue that the Parishioners' “attempt to
re-characterize their claims by introducing By-Laws and
Articles of Incorporation did not change their fundamental
nature.” Id. at 6. The Current Leaders argue
these are still claims about denial of the Parishioners'
“ability to worship, ” thus forbidden by the Free
Exercise Clause. Id. See also 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.”).
motion to amend a party's pleading, the Court
“should freely give leave when justice so
requires.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2). Congress intended
Rule 15(a)(2) “to permit amendment broadly to avoid
dismissal of suits on technical grounds.” Swan v.
Clinton, 100 F.3d 973, 980 (D.C. Cir. 1996). Courts must
therefore read Rule 15(a)(2) as creating “a generally
favorable policy toward amendments.” Hill v. U.S.
Dep't of Def., 70 F.Supp.3d 17, 19 (D.D.C. 2014). In
other words, “[i]f the underlying facts or
circumstances relied upon by a plaintiff may be a proper
subject of relief, he ought to be afforded an opportunity to
test his claim on the merits.” Foman v. Davis,
371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962).
there are limits to that generally favorable policy. See,
e.g., Klee v. Pittsburgh & W.V. Ry. Co., 22
F.R.D. 252, 255 (W.D. Pa. 1958) (“The requirement of
judicial approval suggests that there are instances where
leave should not be granted.”). When a plaintiff fails
to establish the facts or circumstances to make a claim,
amendment is futile and the Court acts within its discretion
to refuse amendment. Foman, 371 U.S. at 182. The
same is true if a party has shown “repeated failure to
cure deficiencies by previous amendments.”
Firestone v. Firestone, 76 F.3d 1205, 1208 (D.C.
Cir. 1996) (internal brackets omitted). Failure to plead
fraud with particularity can establish futility. Id.
at 1209. And the Court may also deny amendment because the
resulting complaint “would not survive a motion to
dismiss.” James Madison Ltd. v. Ludwig, 82
F.3d 1085, 1099 (D.C. Cir. 1996).
Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) permits dismissal when a
plaintiff “fail[s] to state a claim upon which relief
can be granted.” A valid claim must consist of factual
allegations that, if true, “state a claim to relief
that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v.
Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Mere “labels
and conclusions” or “naked assertion[s] devoid of
further factual enhancement” are insufficient.
Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)
(quotations omitted). Rather, “[a] claim has facial
plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that
allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the
defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.”
Id. Under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must construe the
Parishioners' allegations in the light most favorable to
them and accept as true all reasonable factual inferences
drawn from well-pleaded allegations. In re United Mine
Workers of Am. Emp. Benefit Plans Litig., 854 F.Supp.
914, 915 (D.D.C. 1994). The Court need not, however, accept
legal conclusions or conclusory statements as true.
Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.
SAC's Counts I through III allege a conspiracy to violate
RICO, 18 U.S.C. § 1962(b) and (c). Section (b) makes it
unlawful to acquire control of an enterprise “through a
pattern of racketeering activity.” 18 U.S.C. §
1962(b). Section (c) makes it unlawful for an employee or
associate to participate in the enterprise's affairs
“through a pattern of racketeering activity.”
Id. § 1962(c). And § 1962(d) makes it
unlawful for persons to “conspire to violate”
subsections (b) or (c). The statute creates a private cause
of action available to “[a]ny person injured in his
business or property by reason of a violation of section
1962.” 18 U.S.C. § 1964(c); see also Anza v.
Ideal Steel Supply Corp., 547 U.S. 451, 453 (2006).
statutory text makes clear, to bring a successful claim under
these sections, a plaintiff must allege a “pattern of
racketeering activity.” A “pattern”
requires at least two predicate acts of racketeering
activity. Salinas v. United States, 552 U.S. 52, 62
(1997). A plaintiff “must show that the racketeering
predicates are related, and that they amount to or
pose a threat of continued criminal activity.” H.J.
Inc. v. N'west'n Bell Tel. Co., 429 U.S. 229,
239 (1989) (emphasis in original). Of the acts that encompass