Wednesday, November 14, 2007

No vicarious liability against Vermont church for priest's sexual abuse

A "John Doe" sued a church in Vermont alleging that he was sexually abused by a priest. He sued the church and the priest, who defaulted and presumably lost the case for failure to defend himself. Doe then went after the church, maybe because the priest was judgment-proof and had no money to pay out damages. The problem is employers are not always legally responsible for the misconduct of their employees. What to do?

The case is Doe v. Newbury Bible Church, decided on November 14. This was the second time this case landed in the Court of Appeals. The first time around, in 2006, the Second Circuit ruled against Doe because there was no evidence that the church knew or had reason to know that the priest had a propensity for sexual misconduct. That decision is reported at 445 F.3d 594 (2d Cir. 2006). But the Court of Appeals asked the Vermont Supreme Court to decide whether the law in that State would allow Doe to sue the Church by virtue of the priest's employment there. The Vermont Supreme Court answered "no." This dooms the case in the Second Circuit.

The issue for the Vermont Supreme Court was whether, under Vermont law, "a church [is] subject to vicarious liability for tortious acts of its pastor under the Restatement (Second) of Agency section 219(2)(d) if the pastor was allegedly 'aided in accomplishing the tort by the existence of the agency relation' with the church." In other words, was the priest able to abuse Doe as a result of his relationship with the church? In a prior case in Vermont, the State court there ruled that a county sheriff's department could be vicariously liable for sexual misconduct by a police officer. But, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled, that is quite different from cases involving sexual abuse by a priest at a church. while police cases involve "the extraordinary power that a law enforcement officer has over a citizen," the Vermont courts apparently deem the sexual abuse scenario a different circumstance entirely. Adopting the views of the Vermont courts, the Second Circuit dismissed Doe's case against the church.

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