Turner v. Roman Catholic Diocese

Decision Date09 October 2009
Docket NumberNo. 08-003.,08-003.
Citation987 A.2d 960,2009 VT 101
CourtVermont Supreme Court

Jerome F. O'Neill, John F. Evers and Michael I. Green of O'Neill Kellner & Green, Burlington, for Plaintiff-Appellee/Cross-Appellant.

Daniel L. Burchard of McCormick, Fitzpatrick, Kasper & Burchard, P.C., Burlington, and Kaveh S. Shahi of Cleary Shahi & Aicher, P.C., Rutland, for Defendant-Appellant/Cross-Appellee.



¶ 1. Defendant Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, Vermont appeals an adverse final judgment on the grounds that the superior court erred by (1) granting plaintiff James Turner's motion for judgment as a matter of law and setting aside the jury's finding on the statute of limitations' discovery period, (2) failing to dismiss plaintiff's claim of negligent supervision, and (3) granting a mistrial and awarding sanctions against defendant. Plaintiff cross-appeals on the ground that the court erred by empanelling a juror who is a member of the diocese. We reverse and remand.

¶ 2. The basic facts may be briefly summarized. Additional material facts will be set forth in the discussion that follows. Father Alfred Willis, a Roman Catholic priest, sexually assaulted plaintiff in June 1977 in a motel room in Albany, New York, following the ordination of plaintiff's brother as a Roman Catholic priest. Plaintiff was sixteen years old at the time. That same summer, Willis attempted to assault plaintiff again at plaintiff's parents' home in Derby, Vermont. At the time of these events, Willis was assigned to a parish under defendant's authority.

¶ 3. In 2004, plaintiff filed suit against defendant, alleging that the diocese negligently hired, trained, supervised and retained Willis.1 The case first went to trial in June 2007, but ended in a mistrial, with the court imposing a monetary sanction on defendant for causing the mistrial. At the second trial in December 2007, the jury found that defendant negligently supervised Willis and caused him damages of $15,000, but that plaintiff sued over six years after he knew of the molestation, the resulting harm, and defendant's responsibility for such conduct. Although the jury's finding on when plaintiff had the requisite knowledge would normally have meant that the suit was barred by the statute of limitations, the trial judge concluded that the finding lacked evidentiary support and ruled that the jury verdict on liability and damages would stand. Both defendant and plaintiff appeal.

¶ 4. Before we address the merits of the appeal, it is helpful to create a roadmap of the issues on appeal and the order in which they will be addressed. First, we address defendant's argument that it should not have been sanctioned during the first trial. Because the sanction arose out of the first trial, it is independent of the other issues in this case.

¶ 5. Second and third, we address defendant's arguments involving the First Amendment to the Federal Constitution and the statute of limitations. With respect to the First Amendment, defendant argues that the suit against it violates its rights under the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses, and the religious autonomy doctrine under these clauses. With respect to the statute of limitations, defendant argues that the six-year statute of limitations used by the court does not apply because the requirements of the retroactivity provision are not met and that the court erred in rejecting the jury's finding that plaintiff did not sue in time under the six-year statute. Finally, we address plaintiff's cross-appeal argument that the court erred in refusing to exclude a juror for cause.

¶ 6. We start with the mistrial and imposition of sanctions. This case was first tried in June 2007, ending in a mistrial. Before the June trial, plaintiff filed a motion in limine to exclude any reference to a sexual relationship between Willis and plaintiff's brother. The trial court granted this motion, stating that "[d]efense questions about this subject are barred as being irrelevant to the case before the court." During its cross-examination of plaintiff, defendant inquired into this relationship. The court sustained numerous objections from plaintiff during the cross-examination. During a break in the trial, the trial court entertained plaintiff's motion for a mistrial and costs. At that time, defendant indicated that it wanted reconsideration of the pre-trial ruling prohibiting it from showing that plaintiff's brother and Willis had a sexual relationship. The court orally granted plaintiff's motion, followed by a written ruling when plaintiff moved for the imposition of costs. The court concluded that during the cross-examination defendant's attorney "repeatedly and deliberately violated the court's pre-trial ruling by asking questions which were designed to tell the jury about this relationship." The court granted plaintiff's motion for mistrial "because nothing short of a mistrial could have cured the prejudicial effects of defense counsel's repeated violation of the trial court's pre-trial ruling."

¶ 7. After the mistrial order, defendant responded to plaintiff's oral motion for imposition of costs, arguing that the cross-examination was conducted in good faith, was consistent with the court's evidentiary rulings at the time, and was justified by the introduction of plaintiff's counseling records. It further argued that the mistrial was unjustified, that there were no grounds for sanctions, and that defendant should be allowed discovery and an opportunity to be heard. The court awarded plaintiff and plaintiff's counsel approximately $112,000 to cover the attorneys' costs of trial preparation and trial and expert witness fees. It held that the award was compensatory and not punitive, but noted that the mistrial had helped defendant by enabling it to see plaintiff's case and that the mistrial was a particular hardship for plaintiff. The court characterized defense counsel's actions as "misconduct."

¶ 8. Defendant has appealed the award of costs. Specifically, defendant argues that the court erred in imposing sanctions because: (1) its questions were not intended to elicit the prohibited information; (2) the underlying decision to grant a mistrial was incorrect because there was no prejudice to plaintiff; and (3) the order that defendant violated was not "specific and definite" and left a "reasonable basis for doubt as to its meaning," because any clarity the ruling had was lost by the court's rulings from the bench during the cross-examination.

¶ 9. A mistrial can be an appropriate remedy for a violation of an order made in response to a motion in limine. State v. Wood, 146 Vt. 57, 57, 498 A.2d 494, 495 (1985). Further, the court has inherent power to sanction a party "to protect the integrity of the judicial system." Lamell Lumber Corp. v. Newstress Int'l, Inc., 2007 VT 83, ¶ 23, 182 Vt. 282, 938 A.2d 1215. Thus, the issue is not whether the court had the power to issue the orders it did, but instead whether that power was properly exercised.

¶ 10. In addressing that issue, we must first articulate the standard of review. We review a trial court's mistrial order and the imposition of sanctions for abuse of discretion. State v. Mears, 170 Vt. 336, 345, 749 A.2d 600, 607 (2000); Lamell Lumber, 2007 VT 83, ¶ 23, 182 Vt. 282, 938 A.2d 1215; see also Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32, 55, 111 S.Ct. 2123, 115 L.Ed.2d 27 (1991) (reviewing trial court's exercise of its inherent powers for abuse of discretion); Arizona v. Washington, 434 U.S. 497, 514, 98 S.Ct. 824, 54 L.Ed.2d 717 (1978) (trial judge's declaration of a mistrial "is entitled to great deference"). We will uphold the ruling "unless the court's discretion was either totally withheld or exercised on grounds clearly untenable or unreasonable." Mears, 170 Vt. at 345, 749 A.2d at 607 (quotation omitted).

¶ 11. Drawing on contempt law, defendant argues that we should conduct a more rigorous review of the trial court's sanction order, citing United States v. Local 1804-1, International Longshoremen's Ass'n, AFL-CIO, 44 F.3d 1091, 1095-96 (2d Cir.1995) (concluding that the "review of a contempt order for abuse of discretion is more rigorous than would be the case in other situations in which abuse-of-discretion review is conducted" because the contempt power may be used to regulate out-of-court behavior and is "among the most formidable weapons in the court's arsenal"). In distinguishing this line of cases, we note that the order here is expressly meant to be compensatory and not punitive. See Bigelow v. Bigelow, 171 Vt. 100, 108, 759 A.2d 67, 72 (2000) (citing favorably courts that have held that imposition of noncompensatory fines requires "enhanced due process protections"). Nevertheless, we have held that "[o]rdinarily, use of the contempt power is subject to review only for an abuse of discretion." Hunt v. Hunt, 162 Vt. 423, 436, 648 A.2d 843, 853 (1994). We will conduct a more careful review in certain circumstances. See, e.g., In re Duckman, 2006 VT 23, ¶ 7, 179 Vt. 467, 898 A.2d 734 (reviewing a court's exercise of its discretion "carefully in cases of summary contempt because in those proceedings the otherwise inconsistent functions of prosecutor, jury and judge are united in one individual" (quotation omitted)). The imposition of compensatory sanctions for costs as a result of causing a mistrial does not raise similar concerns necessitating a more rigorous review.

¶ 12. With this background in mind, we turn to defendant's argument that the mistrial was incorrectly declared because there was no violation of the pre-trial order, as its questions were intended to reveal answers that did not disclose the sexual relationship between Willis and plaintiff's brother. While defendant's argument may be true as to some of its questions, the trial court did...

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