Hennepin County District Court File No. 27-CV-11-11654
Jeffrey R. Anderson, Sarah G. Odegaard, Jared D. Shepherd, Jeff Anderson & Associates PA, St. Paul, Minnesota (for appellant)
Thomas E. McEllistrem, Sarah J. McEllistrem, Collins, Buckley, Sauntry, & Haugh P.L.L.P., St. Paul, Minnesota (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Ross, Presiding Judge; Peterson, Judge; and Smith, Judge.
Appellant challenges the summary-judgment dismissal of his negligence claim arising out of sexual abuse by an ordained, credentialed minister during a period when respondent was involved in the annual renewal of the minister's credentials. Appellant argues that the district court erred by concluding that, absent a special relationship, respondent owed no duty of reasonable care to appellant under general negligence principles. Because no showing of a special relationship is required and there is sufficient evidence to permit a jury to conclude that respondent had knowledge of the minister's history of inappropriate relationships with youth while employed as a youth minister, the record is sufficient to require a jury to consider the issue of foreseeability, and we reverse and remand.
Appellant John Doe 169's negligence claim against respondent Minnesota District Council of the Assemblies of God arises out of Paul Brandon's sexual abuse of appellant in 2005 while Brandon was a volunteer in the youth-ministry program at Emmanuel Christian Center of the Assemblies of God Inc. (ECC). ECC is a church that is part of the Assemblies of God denomination. From 1993 to 2006, Brandon held credentials as an ordained minister of the Assemblies of God.
Respondent is a local district council that is one of 60 satellite branches of the National General Council (the General Council) of the Assemblies of God Church. The General Council, in cooperation with the affiliated district councils, ordains, licenses, and certifies ministers. An individual seeking to minister first obtains a license to preach, and then may seek ordination. Minister credentials are obtained through the ordination process. Minister credentials must be renewed annually, and yearly applications for renewal are submitted to district councils.
The General Council and district councils "reserve the authority to discipline or dismiss clergy whose conduct violates certain Biblical standards as enumerated in the General Council Bylaws." And the "General Council is authorized to discipline or dismiss a minister following an investigation by a District Council." Neither the General Council nor respondent has authority to appoint, supervise, or retain volunteers at local churches. Respondent has no authority to supervise or control day-to-day activities of local churches in connection with ministers or volunteers.
Brandon's Employment at Maple Grove
From 1991 to 1999, Brandon was employed as a youth pastor at Maple Grove Assembly of God Church (Maple Grove). At that time, Gregory Hickle was the senior pastor at Maple Grove, and he hired Brandon. Hickle, Mark Brown, and Darrel Lindquist made up Maple Grove's body of elders.
In late 1996 or 1997, Hickle learned that Brandon was hosting sleepovers for male church youths at his home. An elder told Hickle that the elder's son had slept over at Brandon's house. During the sleepover, Brandon insisted that he give the son back and leg rubs and that the son sleep in his bed with him. The son said that Brandon put pressure on him to comply, and although he was uncomfortable, he gave in to the pressure. When Hickle and the elder confronted Brandon, he admitted to the behavior but said that nothing inappropriate or immoral happened. Hickle instructed Brandon to immediately stop the sleepovers. Two or three months later, Hickle learned that Brandon continued to have male youths sleep at his house; a family informed Hickle that their son attended sleepovers at Brandon's and was uncomfortable with Brandon's insistence that he sleep in Brandon's bed with Brandon. Hickle informed the elders and Brandon about the complaint and instructed Brandon to immediately stop the sleepovers. Brandon said that he now understood that his behavior could be viewed as inappropriate and agreed to stop the sleepovers.
In the spring of 1998, the elders began to work with Brandon on improving three job-performance issues: insubordination, Brandon's attitude, and Brandon's inappropriate relationships with teenage boys. The elders were concerned that Brandon lacked adequate adult relationships and that his primary relationships were with teenage boys. Of particular concern was Brandon's relationship with the elder's son whom the elders believed Brandon was manipulating emotionally and attempting to use as an adult confidante.
Hickle testified in a deposition that, although he had concerns about Brandon's inappropriate boundary issues with young boys, he never heard an allegation that Brandon engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior. Hickle testified that he would have investigated any allegation of conduct that involved sexual impropriety. Hickle testified that, if he had known there had been any sexual contact between Brandon and any youth, he would have terminated Brandon's employment and reported the conduct to the police. Hickle testified that he never had a concern or a suspicion that Brandon posed a risk of harm to youths in the Maple Grove congregation or a suspicion that Brandon was not fit to be a youth worker or minister.
In February 1999, after Brandon failed to make progress on the elder's concerns, the elders sought Brandon's resignation from Maple Grove. Because they permitted him to resign, the elders imposed the conditions that Brandon have no contact with the elder's son and present a letter, drafted and signed by the elders, to any future employer outlining Brandon's inappropriate conduct with young boys. The letter identifies the subject matter as being "ISSUES RELATED TO THE MINISTRY OF PASTOR PAUL BRANDON." The letter identifies four main points of concern: (1) inappropriate friendships with youth-group members; (2) favoritism and exclusivity; (3) need for counseling; and (4) failure to heed correction of elders. Under the first area of concern, the letter explains:
[Brandon] has undertaken very close friendships with members of his youth group or very young leaders (less than 21 years old). These inappropriate friendships are different from mentoring friendships in that [Brandon] becomes very dependent on these young men for the major part of his socializing and companionship. [Brandon] undertook a very close friendship with one youth group member in particular with whom he expressed deep emotional burdens (as between very close "best friends" that are normally peers on a maturity level), and this sharing caused the young man to become extremely distressed. We think these are inappropriate relationships because [Brandon] is a strong authority figure, both by way of his age difference and his pastoral office, relative to these young persons. Consequently, the young ...