The opinion of the court was delivered by: John T. Curtin United States District Judge
In this case, plaintiff seeks damages and restitution from defendants, who operate the not-for-profit Most Holy Family Monastery ("MHFM") in Fillmore, New York. According to the complaint, filed May 9, 2008, plaintiff entered the monastery on September 27, 2005 with the intention of becoming a Benedictine monk. He alleges that he later determined that MHFM was not a Benedictine monastery, and left on December 31, 2007. Plaintiff seeks to recover those monies he donated to MHFM in reliance on their representations regarding their affiliation with the Order of St. Benedict. Plaintiff has asserted causes of action for fraud, negligent misrepresentation, unjust enrichment, and money had and received (Item 1).
Defendants filed an answer to the complaint on June 9, 2008 (Item 5), and simultaneously filed motions to dismiss (Item 6) and for a preliminary injunction (Item 7). On July 16, 2008, plaintiff filed a motion to amend/correct the complaint (Item 20). In his proposed amended complaint, plaintiff seeks to add some factual allegations and to assert 10 causes of action -- fraud, negligent misrepresentation, unjust enrichment, mandatory accounting, money had and received, violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1962(c) and (d), deceptive trade practices, false advertising, and vicarious liability of MHFM. In an order dated July 23, 2008, the court granted the motion for preliminary injunctive relief and ordered plaintiff to "return to the defendants all confidential and proprietary records taken from [MHFM] in any form" and to remove confidential and proprietary information from any electronic storage devices in his possession (Item 23). Plaintiff was also instructed to report his compliance with the injunction to the court.
Plaintiff filed a response to the motion to dismiss (Item 26), and defendants filed a response to the motion to amend/correct (Item 25). Oral argument on both motions was heard on August 18, 2008.
On August 8, 2008, plaintiff filed an affidavit reporting his "efforts and success in complying with" the court's order (Item 30). Dissatisfied with both plaintiff's efforts and success, defendants filed a motion for contempt (Item 34). Plaintiff filed a response to the motion (Item 37), and a motion for sanctions pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 11 (Item 40). For the following reasons, the defendants' motion to dismiss is denied, the plaintiff's motion to amend/correct the complaint is granted, the defendants' motion for contempt is denied, and the plaintiff's motion for Rule 11 sanctions is denied.
In approximately 2005, plaintiff learned of the MHFM through research on the Internet (Item 1, ¶¶ 15, 16). He was told by defendant Frederick Dimond, who goes by the name Brother Michael Dimond, OSB, that MHFM dated to the 1960s and that defendant Frederick Dimond was a Benedictine monk who supervised the monastery (id. ¶¶ 18-29). In reliance on information provided by defendant Frederick Dimond, on April 4, 2005, plaintiff made a cash contribution to MHFM of $700.00, and on May 12, 2005, he made an additional cash contribution of $65,000.00 (id. ¶ 21). Plaintiff then made several visits to MHFM and decided to become a postulate under the auspices of Brother Michael and MHFM (id. ¶¶ 22-23). Defendant Frederick Dimond advised plaintiff that he would be required to turn over his worldly possessions to MHFM (id. ¶ 25).
Plaintiff entered the monastery on September 27, 2005 (Item 1, ¶ 26). On November 4, 2005, he transferred stock valued at $1.2 million to MHFM (id. ¶ 28). In late spring/summer of 2006, plaintiff executed a document that specified that he was to receive $750,000.00 if he left the monastery (id. ¶ 30). Subsequently, plaintiff learned that Brother Michael was not a member of the Order of Benedict, that MHFM was neither founded nor operated in accordance with the Order of Saint Benedict, and that he could not become a Benedictine monk through his association with MHFM (id. ¶¶ 31, 32). Plaintiff left MHFM on December 31, 2007 (id. ¶ 33). Defendants have refused a demand that all funds previously transferred to the defendants be returned to the plaintiff (id. ¶ 34).
Defendants contend that the complaint must be dismissed because this court lacks subject matter jurisdiction.*fn1 They base their argument on the First Amendment, applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits the making of "law[s] respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . ." U.S. Constitution, 1st Amendment, 14th Amendment. Specifically, defendants argue that this dispute cannot be adjudicated without interpreting religious doctrine and that the court would necessarily be forced to define the term "Benedictine," to interpret the specific criteria required of a monastery to be considered Benedictine, and to determine what benefits MHFM could confer on the plaintiff. Plaintiff disputes that the court will be required to define and interpret religious doctrine and contends that the defendants misrepresented their affiliation with the Order of St. Benedict. He states that the "only issue to be decided with regard to the fraud claims is whether the defendants are, or are not, affiliated with the universally recognized and sanctioned Order of St. Benedict" (Item 26, p. 3).
Consistent with the First Amendment, courts are forbidden from interfering in or determining religious disputes. The Constitution directs that religious bodies are to be left free to decide church matters for themselves, uninhibited by state interference. Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 709 (1976); Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U.S. 94 (1952). The Constitution limits judicial involvement in disputes raising religious concerns, and courts are prohibited from resolving controversies which require consideration of religious doctrine. Avitzur v. Avitzur, 446 N.E.2d 136, 138 (N.Y.), cert. denied, 464 U.S. 817 (1983); see also Presbyterian Church v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 449 (1969). "[C]ivil courts are bound to accept the decisions of the highest judicatories of a religious organization of hierarchical polity on matters of discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law." Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. at 713.
However, "courts are free to decide such disputes if they can do so without resolving underlying controversies over religious doctrine." Park Slope Jewish Center v. Congregation B'nai Jacob, 686 N.E.2d 1330, 1331 (N.Y. 1997). This "neutral principles of law" approach requires the court to apply objective, well-established principles of secular law to the issues, without reference to any religious principle. Avitzur, 446 N.E.2d at 138.
The question that we must resolve in the case before us, therefore, is whether the dispute . . . is an ecclesiastical one about "discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom or law," or whether it is a case in which we should hold religious organizations liable in civil courts for "purely secular disputes between ...