Wright County District Court File No. C1022072
Considered and decided by Schumacher , Presiding Judge; Willis , Judge;
and Wright , Judge.
1. The duty of an organization to protect its members from injury by a third party arises only where there is a special relationship between an organization and its members.
2. Minnesota's child abuse reporting act, Minn. Stat. § 626.556 (2000), does not provide for a civil cause of action.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Robert H. Schumacher, Judge
Appellants Heidi Meyer and Jane L A Doe challenge the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of respondents Annandale Congregation of Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses (Annandale Congregation) and Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. (Watchtower). Meyer and Doe argue Annandale Congregation and Watchtower owed a common law duty of care, had a special relationship with Meyer and Doe giving rise to a special duty of care, and are liable for negligence because they failed to report child abuse as mandated under Minn. Stat. § 626.556 (2000)*fn1. Annandale Congregation and Watchtower argue the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution precludes subject matter jurisdiction. We affirm.
During the times of the alleged wrongdoing, Meyer and Doe, their parents, and respondent Derek Lindala were members of Annandale Congregation, a congregation of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Annandale Congregation is managed by Watchtower's governing body. The governing body has authority over every person and all matters in Annandale Congregation, including discipline of individual members and furthering the overall welfare of the congregation. The governing body appoints elders to each congregation, including Annandale Congregation, to act as spiritual leaders.
Meyer and Doe state that Jehovah's Witnesses doctrine requires members"to associate only with other members of the Jehovah's Witnesses organization and avoid association with other people who are not Jehovah's Witnesses." In their depositions, Meyer and Doe stated that members are expected to bring all allegations of wrongdoing to congregation elders. If a member makes an allegation of wrongdoing to anyone other than an elder, including law enforcement, that person can be accused of gossip or slander, which are punishable offenses within the organization. According to Jehovah's Witnesses doctrine, wrongdoing cannot be proven without two eyewitnesses to the wrongful act, nondisputable evidence, or confession by the wrongdoer. According to Richard Olson, the presiding overseer of Annandale Congregation, upon hearing allegations of child abuse, the elders of Annandale Congregation contact legal counsel at Watchtower and make a report to authorities if directed to do so by counsel.
According to affiant Rebecca Mumford, in approximately 1989 the elders of Annandale Congregation received information that Lindala had sexually abused his younger sister. At the time, Mumford was a Jehovah's Witness and friend to Lindala's sister. Lindala was approximately 17 years old and his sister was six years old. The elders investigated the allegation, did not immediately report the information to law enforcement, and allowed Lindala to continue as a member of Annandale Congregation.
From 1989 to 1992, Meyer was repeatedly sexually assaulted by Lindala while she was between the ages of 10 and 12. The abuse occurred at various locations, including Lindala's parents' home. Meyer reported the abuse to her parents in approximately 1994. Meyer and her father then reported the abuse to elders of Annandale Congregation. Watchtower was also informed. The elders instructed Meyer not to report the abuse to anyone and threatened she would be"disfellowed" if she did so. Disfellowship is the act of excommunication from the organization.
In 1991, while she was 10 or 11 years old, Doe was sexually assaulted by Lindala. The incident took place in the basement of Lindala's parents' home. Doe and her father immediately reported the incident to elders of Annandale Congregation. The elders told Doe and her father they would be investigating the allegation and threatened Doe and her father with disfellowship if they reported the matter to anyone, including ...