Lewis v. Bellows Falls Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Bellows Falls, Vt., Inc.

CourtUnited States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. District of Vermont
Citation248 F.Supp.3d 530
Docket NumberCase No. 1:14-cv-205.
Parties Annessa LEWIS, Plaintiff, v. BELLOWS FALLS CONGREGATION OF JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES, Bellows Falls, Vermont, Inc.; Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.; and Norton True, Defendants.
Decision Date30 March 2017

248 F.Supp.3d 530

Annessa LEWIS, Plaintiff,
BELLOWS FALLS CONGREGATION OF JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES, Bellows Falls, Vermont, Inc.; Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.; and Norton True, Defendants.

Case No. 1:14-cv-205.

United States District Court, D. Vermont.

Signed March 30, 2017

248 F.Supp.3d 534

Devin Miles Storey, Esq., Pro Hac Vice, Irwin M. Zalkin, Esq., Pro Hac Vice, The Zalkin Law Firm, P.C., San Diego, CA, Jerome F. O'Neill, Esq., Gravel & Shea PC, Burlington, VT, for Plaintiff.

Jennifer E. McDonald, Esq., Marc B. Heath, Esq., Walter E. Judge, Jr., Esq., Downs Rachlin Martin PLLC, Barbara R. Blackman, Esq., Pietro J. Lynn, Esq., Lynn, Lynn, Blackman & Manitsky, P.C., Thomas W. Costello, Esq., Thomas W. Costello PC, William E. Kraham, Esq., William E. Kraham, PLC, Burlington, VT, John O. Miller, Esq., Pro Hac Vice, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. Legal Department, Patterson, NY, for Defendants.


Hon. J. Garvan Murtha, United States District Judge

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Annessa Lewis ("Lewis" or Plaintiff) commenced this diversity action

248 F.Supp.3d 535

in October 2014. (Doc. 1.) She alleges Norton True ("True"), a Ministerial Servant of the Jehovah's Witness Church, sexually abused her when she was a child. The claim remaining against Bellows Falls Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Bellows Falls, Vermont, Inc. (the "Congregation") and Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. ("Watchtower"), following motions to dismiss, see Docs. 15, 35, is for negligence based on duties to perform an undertaking and to supervise. (Doc. 35.) Lewis seeks damages for past and continuing "great pain of mind and body, shock, emotional distress, physical manifestations of emotional distress, embarrassment, loss of self-esteem, disgrace, humiliation, and loss of enjoyment of life," spiritual suffering, loss of earnings and earning capacity, and expenses for medical and psychological treatment, therapy, and counseling, as well as for being and continuing "to be prevented from performing [her] daily activities and obtaining the full enjoyment of life." (Doc. 20 (First Am. Compl. ("FAC")) ¶¶ 92, 107.) The Congregation, Watchtower, and True (collectively, "Defendants") move for summary judgment dismissing the complaint in its entirety. (Docs. 188, 199.) Lewis opposes the motions (Docs. 193, 202) and Defendants filed replies (Docs. 195, 207). Defendants also filed motions to strike Plaintiff's statements of disputed material facts. (Docs. 196, 206.) The motions to strike are unopposed. For the following reasons, the Defendants' motions for summary judgment are granted.

II. Background 1

Annessa Lewis was the third of four siblings of a Jehovah's Witness family. Her date of birth is January 9, 1987. The family moved to Vermont that year and began attending meetings at the Bellows Falls Kingdom Hall in late 1987 or 1988. The Congregation owns the Kingdom Hall in Bellows Falls, Vermont. Watchtower is a religious corporation located in Brooklyn, New York. True, a married father of three, was a baptized member of the Bellows Falls Congregation from 1976 to 2012 and served as a ministerial servant from 1976–1986 and 1995–2012.2

True and Lewis's mother and father were baptized publishers at the time of the alleged sexual abuse of Lewis. A baptized publisher is a baptized member of the Jehovah's Witness church who participates in field service and actively shares the message of the Bible. True, a civil engineer, also handled all aspects of the maintenance of the Kingdom Hall, along with two others, worked on wastewater system issues, and kept the ventilation system running during meetings. He assisted in the magazine and literature departments and counted attendance at meetings, occasionally seating attendees if attendance was high. Lewis asserts these tasks were typically assigned to ministerial servants. (Doc. 193–1 ¶¶ 13–14, 25, 161.) She also states he hosted Congregation events at his farm and worked for Watchtower on the "Quick Build Kingdom Hall construction program" during the late 1980s and early 1990s, participated in construction projects, and worked as a Site Planning Coordinator for the Massachusetts Regional Build Committee. Id.; see also Doc. 193–2 ¶¶ 16–17, 19–22.

At the time of the sexual abuse of Lewis, Lewis's mother and True's daughter, Stacy Bathrick, were best friends. Stacy regularly

248 F.Supp.3d 536

babysat Lewis and her siblings during the early 1990s, including at the time of the abuse alleged in this case, which occurred when Lewis was roughly five years old or in preschool in 1991, 1992 or 1993. Stacy took Lewis to her father's home on the day of the abuse without Lewis's mother's awareness. Lewis alleges True took her to his horse barn and reached down her overalls under her underwear and touched her vagina. (Doc. 202–4 (Lewis Dep.) 124:1–5; 128:12–130:25.)

Lewis did not tell anyone of the abuse until 1996 when she was nine. That summer, her family attended a going-away party for another Congregation family at True's house. As the Lewis family was leaving, Lewis's younger sister Miranda said she had been "touched" by True; Lewis informed her mother he had also "touched" her. (Doc. 202–2 ¶¶ 40, 43.) At that time, Lewis knew what True had done to her was wrong. Lewis's mother reported the abuse to a Congregation elder, Matthew Reimann. Elders function as a sort of board of directors of a congregation handling administrative tasks, care for the spiritual needs of the congregation, and apply biblical principles to address allegations of sin and wrongdoing within a congregation. (Doc. 202–2 ¶ 15.)

Lewis's mother took her to a therapist for observation and also sought advice from Dr. Barbara Belcher–Timme, Psy. D., a psychologist and mandated reporter. In September 1996, the Vermont State Police were notified of Lewis's and Miranda's allegations and the girls met with a detective. In November, Lewis's mother was advised True would not be charged. In late 1996 or early 1997, as a result of True's abuse, Lewis and her family stopped attending the Bellows Falls Congregation and joined the South Claremont, New Hampshire Congregation. They left the Jehovah's Witness religion altogether in 2000, as a result of a degrading relationship with the congregation and religion caused by the incident with True. Around 2001, when she was fourteen, Lewis saw Dr. Belcher–Timme. Lewis understood her mother brought her to the psychologist because she was cutting herself. (Doc. 202–2 at ¶ 88.) She testified she was feeling depressed and "had some mental health issues going on" at that time. (Doc. 202–4 (Lewis Dep.) 153:5–25.)

Lewis has always believed she was sexually abused by True. The Lewis family discussed the molestation throughout Lewis's childhood and Lewis and her older sister specifically discussed it on many occasions during her teenage years. When she was 14 or 15, Lewis began to experience flashbacks, and was interrupted in an attempt to be physically intimate with a boyfriend by memories of True sexually abusing her. (Doc. 193–1 ¶¶ 135–36; Doc. 202–2 ¶¶ 97–99.) She testified she first remembers experiencing depression around age 14 as it "intensified." (Doc. 202–4 (Lewis Dep.) 99:21–24; 182:19–20.) In high school, she posted about having experienced the abuse, talked about it with her boyfriend, and discussed it with close high school friends. In a July 2004 journal entry, Lewis [mentioned] "the man who molested Miranda and I," and reflected on her experience with True, "Why is this old and trusted man's hand down my pants and no memories left of the sunny afternoons I used to lay out on the lawn with my dad." (Doc. 202–2 ¶¶ 115–16, 119.) In August 2004 entries, she wrote her history of men included "my sexual abuser," who she identifies as True, and referred to having been "sexually assaulted" by True. Id.¶¶ 121, 124, 126. In 2014, Lewis wrote to a friend that she "used to talk about [the abuse] as part of the healing process, realizing it was an act done to me that I had no willing part in." Id.¶ 143.

248 F.Supp.3d 537

Lewis asserts the Congregation and Watchtower have a policy of "vigilantly monitoring" accused molestors for the safety and protection of children whenever the molester is in the congregational setting. (Doc. 193–1 ¶¶ 22–23.) In 1990, True's daughter Stacy's step-daughter, Rebecca Bathrick, accused True, her step-grandfather, of sexual molestation. Congregation elders, including Reimann, were informed of the allegation, and that it was later withdrawn; the elders took no action against True. Id.¶¶ 33–34. Lewis testified at her deposition that she was not aware prior to her case of the Bathrick allegation of abuse. (Doc. 193–12 (Lewis Dep.) at 173:4–14.)

III. Discussion

A. Legal Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate only where the parties' submissions show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56. The Court must resolve ambiguities and draw inferences in favor of the opposing party and decide whether a rational juror could decide in favor of that party under...

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