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Nunez v. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.

Supreme Court of Montana

January 8, 2020

ALEXIS NUNEZ and HOLLY McGOWAN, Plaintiffs and Appellees,
v.
WATCHTOWER BIBLE AND TRACT SOCIETY OF NEW YORK, INC.; CHRISTIAN CONGREGATION OF JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES; and THOMPSON FALLS CONGREGATION OF JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES, Defendants and Appellants. WATCHTOWER BIBLE AND TRACT SOCIETY OF NEW YORK, INC.; CHRISTIAN CONGREGATION OF JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES; and THOMPSON FALLS CONGREGATION OF JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES, Third-Party Plaintiffs and Appellants,
v.
MAXIMO NAVA REYES and IVY McGOWAN-CASTLEBERRY, Third-Party Defendants.

          Argued: September 13, 2019

          Submitted: September 17, 2019

          APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Twentieth Judicial District, In and For the County of Sanders, Cause No. DV-16-84 Honorable James A. Manley, Presiding Judge.

          For Appellants: Bradley J. Luck, Tessa A. Keller, Garlington, Lohn & Robinson, PLLP, Missoula, Montana, Joel M. Taylor (argued), Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Patterson, New York.

          For Appellees: James P. Molloy (argued), Gallik, Bremer & Molloy, PC, D. Neil Smith, Ross Leonoudakis, Nix Patterson, LLP, Dallas, Texas.

          For Intervenor: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, Matthew T. Cochenour, Acting Solicitor General, Jon Bennion, Chief Deputy Attorney General, Helena, Montana.

          OPINION

          BETH BAKER JUSTICE.

         ¶1 Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Christian Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, and Thompson Falls Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses (collectively, "Jehovah's Witnesses") appeal the Twentieth Judicial District Court's ruling that they violated Montana's mandatory child abuse reporting statute, § 41-3-201, MCA, and its order granting summary judgment to Plaintiff Alexis Nunez on her negligence per se claim. They also appeal the court's award of punitive damages following a jury trial. We hold that Jehovah's Witnesses are excepted from the mandatory reporting statute under § 41-3-201(6)(c), MCA, because the undisputed material facts in the record show that Jehovah's Witnesses canon law, church doctrine, or established church practice required that the reports of abuse in this case be kept confidential. We therefore reverse the District Court's grant of summary judgment to Alexis and remand for entry of summary judgment in favor of Jehovah's Witnesses. Because this issue is dispositive, we do not reach the punitive damages award or the Jehovah's Witnesses' other arguments.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND[1]

         ¶2 Peter McGowan, Ivy McGowan-Castleberry, and Plaintiff Holly McGowan are siblings. Their mother Joni married Maximo Reyes in 1994. Plaintiff Alexis Nunez is Ivy's daughter. At all times relevant to the underlying complaint, Holly, Peter, Joni, and Maximo were members of the Thompson Falls Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses ("Thompson Falls Congregation").

         ¶3 In 1998, Holly told Don Herberger, a local elder at the Thompson Falls Congregation, that her step-father Maximo had inappropriately touched and fondled her. Herberger directed Holly to two other local elders, Ken Reich and Glenn Wilson, who dismissed her accusations on the grounds that they lacked a confession or second witness-which elders require to substantiate a report of abuse before taking actions against the accused-and were therefore unactionable. Without recourse, Holly returned home, where Maximo's abuse escalated to include numerous incidents of rape. His abuse continued until she was old enough to leave home.

         ¶4 In 2004, Peter told Don Herberger that Maximo had sexually abused him as a child. Pursuant to the "two-witness" rule, Don contacted Holly to confirm Peter's report. Holly wrote a letter corroborating the allegations and detailing Maximo's sexual abuse throughout her childhood. She concluded, "I want to thank Jehovah's shepherds for looking after his flock and for taking care of this situation." Don thereafter called Defendant Watchtower Bible and Tract Society's ("Watchtower") legal department. An attorney advised him that Montana law did not require him to report Maximo's abuse to local authorities. Having received this advice, Don did not contact local police to report Maximo's abuse.

         ¶5 Instead, Don, Glenn, and Ken formed a "judicial committee" and confronted Maximo about the allegations. After hearing from all three, the committee believed Peter's and Holly's accounts. In April 2004, the committee disfellowshipped Maximo- banished him from the congregation-and submitted to Defendant Christian Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses ("CCJW") a written report called an "S-77 Form" detailing the events leading to Maximo's expulsion. Maximo requested the local elders to reinstate him to the congregation; a year later, in June 2005, they granted his request.

         ¶6 Alexis is Peter's and Holly's niece and Maximo's step-granddaughter. Maximo started sexually abusing Alexis in 2002, after Holly initially reported Maximo to Don Herberger. Maximo continued to molest Alexis on a weekly basis over the next five years. During this time, though unaware of Maximo's abuse of Alexis, the elders received Peter's report; contacted the Watchtower legal department; formed a judicial committee to investigate the allegations; disfellowshipped Maximo; and reinstated him. They also observed Alexis accompanying Maximo to weekend services at the Thompson Falls Congregation. The elders did not contact local police. Alexis was five years old when Maximo's abuse began and ten years old when it ended.

         ¶7 In 2016, Alexis and Holly sued Jehovah's Witnesses for damages stemming from their failure to report Maximo to the authorities. Among other theories, they alleged Jehovah's Witnesses were negligent per se under Montana's mandatory child abuse reporting statute, § 41-3-201, MCA. In response, Jehovah's Witnesses argued that they had no duty to report under § 41-3-201(6)(c), MCA, [2] which exempts clergy from the mandatory reporting statute if canon law, church doctrine, or established church practice requires the communication of child abuse to be kept confidential.

         ¶8 The District Court granted summary judgment to Alexis on her negligence per se claim, concluding: "Defendants failed to report as mandated by Mont. Code Ann. § 41-3-201(2)(h). Defendants are liable for the harm of Alexis Nunez caused by Max Reyes after the 2004 report of abuse, as a matter of law. The question left to the jury is what is the appropriate amount of damages to award Alexis Nunez." The plaintiffs dismissed their common law negligence claims and proceeded to a jury trial on this single claim. The jury found against Holly and awarded her nothing. Having been instructed that Jehovah's Witnesses were liable as a matter of law to Alexis, the jury awarded her $4 million in compensatory damages and $31 million in punitive damages. Jehovah's Witnesses appeal both the District Court's summary judgment ruling that they are mandatory reporters and its failure to have the jury decide causation. Finally, they challenge the punitive damages award on statutory and constitutional grounds.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶9 This Court reviews de novo a district court's grant or denial of summary judgment, applying the criteria of M. R. Civ. P. 56(c). Stipe v. First Interstate Bank - Polson, 2008 MT 239, ¶ 10, 344 Mont. 435, 188 P.3d 1063. Summary judgment is appropriate when the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with any affidavits, demonstrate that no genuine issue of material fact exists and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. M. R. Civ. P. 56(c). "A de novo review affords no deference to the district court's decision and we independently review the record, using the same criteria used by the district court to determine whether summary judgment is appropriate." Siebken v. Voderberg, 2012 MT 291, ¶ 20, 367 Mont. 344, 291 P.3d ...


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