A.H. v. Church of God in Christ, Inc.

Decision Date15 August 2019
Docket NumberRecord No. 180520
Parties A.H., a Minor, BY Her NEXT FRIENDS, C.H. and E.H. v. CHURCH OF GOD IN CHRIST, INC., et al.
CourtVirginia Supreme Court

Drew P. Von Bargen, II (Christopher M. Day ; Jonathan A. Nelson, Fairfax; Juris Day, on briefs), for appellant.

Tina M. Maiolo (Joseph B. Greener; Carr Maloney, on brief), for appellee Church of God in Christ, Inc.

John D. Eure (William P. Wallace ; Jason R. Whiting ; Johnson, Ayers & Matthews, on brief), Roanoke, for appellee Gospel Tabernacle Church of God in Christ.

PRESENT: All the Justices


Don Billups, a church deacon and youth leader, was convicted of sexually abusing minors over the span of several years. He received two life sentences plus an additional term of 75 years in prison. One of the victims, A.H., filed this civil suit against (1) Don Billups; (2) his wife, Donna Billups; (3) the local church, Gospel Tabernacle Church of God in Christ ("Gospel Tabernacle"); and (4) the national denomination, Church of God in Christ, Inc. ("COGIC"). Among other allegations, A.H. claimed that the local church and the national denomination (collectively, the "church defendants") had known of a prior sexual-abuse allegation against Don Billups and had done nothing to warn or protect her.

The circuit court granted the church defendantsdemurrers and dismissed A.H.’s amended complaint with prejudice. On appeal, A.H. contends that her factual allegations, if presumed true, state legally viable claims against the church defendants and, thus, that her case should not have been dismissed on demurrer. Finding two of her arguments persuasive, we reverse in part and affirm in part.



"Because this appeal arises from the grant of a demurrer, we accept as true all factual allegations expressly pleaded in the complaint and interpret those allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Coward v. Wellmont Health Sys. , 295 Va. 351, 358, 812 S.E.2d 766 (2018). "To survive a challenge by demurrer," however, factual allegations "must be made with ‘sufficient definiteness to enable the court to find the existence of a legal basis for its judgment.’ " Squire v. Virginia Hous. Dev. Auth. , 287 Va. 507, 514, 758 S.E.2d 55 (2014) (citation omitted).1 A plaintiff may rely upon inferences to satisfy this requirement, but only "to the extent that they are reasonable ." Coward , 295 Va. at 358-59, 812 S.E.2d 766 (emphasis in original). Distinguishing between reasonable and unreasonable inferences is "a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense," Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 679, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009), guided by the principle that "a well-pleaded complaint may proceed even if it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of those facts is improbable," Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007).


A.H. filed an initial complaint, and, with leave of court, an amended complaint against all four defendants. The circuit court granted the demurrers of Donna Billups and the church defendants and dismissed the claims against them with prejudice. In response, A.H. nonsuited her claims against Don Billups and appealed the circuit court’s dismissal of her claims against the other defendants. We awarded A.H. an appeal only to address her claims against the church defendants. Our recitation of the facts, of course, restates only factual allegations that, even if plausibly pleaded, are as yet wholly untested by the adversarial process.

1. The Relationships Among the Parties

In her 35-page amended complaint, A.H. alleges that Gospel Tabernacle "at all times relevant to this action was owned, operated, managed, and/or otherwise controlled by" COGIC. J.A. at 45; see also id. at 46 (alleging that Gospel Tabernacle "has assumed the vows of membership in" COGIC); id. at 60 (alleging that COGIC "negligently supervised" Gospel Tabernacle). Gospel Tabernacle, "[a]s a local church," "is a part of the basic unit of the structural organization" of COGIC, with the former being "governed" by the latter’s "Jurisdictional bishops" and "rules and regulations." Id. at 46. Gospel Tabernacle is "required to follow" COGIC’s "Charter, Constitution, Laws and Doctrines." Id. Given this relationship, A.H. alleges, Gospel Tabernacle "was an agent" of COGIC. Id. at 47.

In his capacity as a church "Deacon, Youth Leader and Drill Team Coach," Don Billups2 served "as an employee and/or agent"3 of the church defendants. Id. at 50; see also id. at 48 (alleging that "Don Billups acted within the actual or apparent authority of" the church defendants, "who held out that [he] was a person appropriate to coach a drill team and work within the Youth Department and as a Deacon"); id. at 49 (alleging that, "[a]t all relevant times to this action, Defendant Don Billups was an agent or employee of" the church defendants and "was acting within the scope of his agency or employment").4

Donna Billups served as a "licensed missionary" for the church defendants and was responsible for, among other things, "child evangelism." Id. at 47-48 (emphasis omitted). As part of her child-evangelism responsibilities, she "assisted" her husband in coaching Gospel Tabernacle’s drill team by "provid[ing] rides to children." Id. While serving in these capacities, Don and Donna Billups "were agents and/or employees acting within the scope of their agency or employment with" the church defendants. Id. at 48; see also id. at 49, 75.

Both church defendants "selected, hired, employed, retained and supervised" Don and Donna Billups. Id. at 48. "At all relevant times, the Drill Team and Youth Department were subject to the direct control and supervision of" Gospel Tabernacle "and/or" COGIC. Id. at 49. Both Don and Donna Billups "actively recruited" young people for the drill team "during church services" through announcements and other means. Id. at 50. The church defendants held Don and Donna Billups "out to their congregants and the community as their agents." Id. at 75.

2. The 2003 Sexual-Abuse Allegation

In 2003, a 13-year-old girl reported that Don Billups had sexually abused her in 2002. Testifying at Don Billups’s criminal trial in 2012, Donna Billups "admitted ... that she was aware of accusations of the victim who came forward in 2003 and that she was ‘aware of it when she [the victim] made it.’ " Id. at 52 (alteration in original). Donna Billups testified at a bond hearing that, despite this knowledge, she had told her husband only that "he needs to ah, be more careful." Id. at 51. She "continued to allow children to be in [his] presence" and "admitted" that Don Billups had continued to "entertain[ ] children in her house on a regular basis, including on occasions when her daughters were not there." Id. She was aware that Don Billups had "made no change in his lifestyle and didn’t try to stay away from young girls, be more careful, or not hang out with teenagers." Id. "Don was just being Don," she said, "Don was just doing Don." Id.

Prior to the sexual abuse of A.H. (which occurred from 2006 to 2010), Gospel Tabernacle "and/or" COGIC "became aware of" the "allegations of sexual abuse that Defendant Donald Billups committed in 2002 as the result of a criminal and/or social services investigation." Id. at 52. Despite this knowledge, the church defendants "took no action" and "continued to permit Donald Billups to have access to children as well [as] privileges and duties as a church member, Deacon, Youth Leader and Drill Team Coach, without any restrictions at all, thus sanctioning and ratifying his conduct." Id. at 53. The church defendants did nothing even though they "knew or should have known of Don Billups[s] propensities to commit harmful acts upon children," id. at 58.

3. The Sexual Abuse of A.H. and the Criminal Trial

"For the alleged purpose of furthering his assigned duties" on behalf of the church defendants, Don Billups "sought and gained the trust and friendship of Plaintiff A.H. and other children he similarly met through the church and their families." Id. at 53. The church defendants "knew or should have known that" A.H. visited the Billups residence "in conjunction with Drill Team activities and would otherwise engage in activities alone with Defendant Don Billups." Id. ; see also id. at 59 (alleging that "Don Billups gained access to Plaintiff A.H. due to the negligence and recklessness of" the church defendants). Having held Don Billups out as their agent, the church defendants "voluntarily took the custody of the minor plaintiff and subjected her to an association with Donald Billups, a person likely to harm her and therefore owed a duty to exercise reasonable care to plaintiff to prevent her from being exposed to an unreasonable risk of harm," id. at 53.

"Between 2006 and 2010," the amended complaint alleges, Don Billups sexually abused A.H. and other minors "at his home in the course of performing duties that were within the scope of his employment and/or agency with" the church defendants. Id. at 53-54. During this period, A.H. was between the ages of four and eight years old. Don Billups committed the abuse while "in execution of the services for which he was employed to perform by those same Defendants, namely as a Deacon, Youth Leader and/or Drill Team Coach." Id. at 54; see also id. at 48 ("At all relevant times to this action, [the church defendants] selected, hired, employed, retained and supervised Defendants [Don and Donna Billups] who were agents and/or employees acting within the scope of their agency or employment ...."); id. at 48-49 (alleging that Don and Donna Billups "acted within the actual or apparent authority" of the church defendants); id. at 76 (alleging that Don and Donna Billups committed tortious acts "during services that were within the ordinary course" of the church defendants' "business").

"In the Fall of 2011," the church defendant...

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