John Doe 169 v. Paul Alan Brandon, Minnesota District Council of the Assemblies of God, et al.. MN clergy sex abuse, duty of care of denomination
In 1991, Paul Alan Brandon began working as a youth pastor at Maple Grove Assembly of God. He then obtained credentials as an ordained minister of the Assemblies of God. Gregory Hickle, the Senior Pastor at Maple Grove, heard reports that Brandon had hosted a sleepover and insisted that a young male sleep in the same bed with him. A few months later, another such report came in. Hickle ordered Brandon to stop the sleepovers, but didn't make any kind of police report. Eventually, the congregation insisted that Brandon "resign under discipline" or be terminated. Brandon elected to resign.
Brandon then worked outside of ministry, but started volunteering with the youth ministry a Emmanuel Christian Center, another Assemblies of God congregation in Spring Lake Park, MN. As a volunteer, he was not required to have ministerial credentials, and he received the required training for lay volunteers. After three years of volunteer work, starting in 2002, Brandon became a "volunteer captain" and led "cell group" meetings for middle school or high school students. Sometimes, students would stay overnight at Brandon's home. John Doe was one such student, and in 2005, Brandon sexually abused Doe. As soon as it learned of these allegations, the congregation ended Brandon's volunteer work. In 2010, Brandon pleaded guilty to criminal sexual conduct.
At the time that he was abusing Doe, Brandon continued to maintain his ministerial credentials. He submitted his annual renewal applications to the District Council, which made recommendations to the General Council, the governing body of the Assemblies of God.
In 2004, Brandon's former boss, Gregory Hickle, left his position at the Maple Grove congregation and became the Secretary and Treasurer of the District Council. When Brandon submitted his renewal applications in 2004 and 2005, it was Hickle who submitted the applications to the General Council. Hickle later testified that he did not make a recommendation as to fitness for any applicant, but merely verified that the applicant had completed all of the preliminary steps. He stated that the General Council was the body responsible for determining a minister's fitness.
In 2011, Doe commenced a lawsuit in Hennepin County District Court, naming the District Council as one of the defendants. He alleged that the District Council was negligent. But the District Court held that the District Council owed no duty to the plaintiff, since Brandon was not employed by the District Council, and did not supervise him in any way.
The Minnesota Court of appeals, in an unpublished opinion issued May 28, 2013, reversed. It held that the District Council owed a duty of care. The Court of Appeals had noted that a supervisor at the Spring Lake Park church had testified that the fact that Brandon was an ordained minister was one of the things that gave assurance that Brandon had fitness to work as a youth leader. For these reasons, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case.
The District Council sought review by the Minnesota Supreme Court, which agreed to take the case.
The Supreme Court first noted that a duty of care could arise in one of two ways. First of all, there might be a duty if the defendant had a special relationship with the plaintiff and harm was foreseeable. But in this case, there was no special relationship. But the plaintiff argued that a duty to care would arise if the defendant's own conduct created a foreseeable risk of injury to a foreseeable plaintiff.
But the Court noted that the defendant's "own conduct" in this context means actual misfeasance, or active misconduct. Mere nonfeasance is not sufficient to create a duty. The Court went on to conclude that this had not happened in this case. The District Council did not employ Brandon or control the local congregation's youth ministry in any way. Also, the Supreme Court noted that Brandon was already established as a volunteer when the District Council first became aware of the prior conduct, due to Hickle's taking his position with the Council. Finally, the Supreme Court noted that it was the Church's General Council, and not the District Council, that was ultimately responsible for making the fitness determination.
The Supreme Court noted that there might be a duty to protect others from harm in other cases, and that the duty depends upon the facts and circumstances of the case. But under the facts of this case, the Supreme Court held that there was no duty. For those reasons, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, and affirmed the Hennepin County court's dismissal of the case.
The Supreme Court's unanimous opinion, released on April 9, 2014, was authored by Justice Lillehaug.
No. No. A12-1721 (Minn. April 9, 2014).
Please see the original opinion for the court's exact language.
Richard P. Clem is an attorney and continuing legal education (CLE) provider in Minnesota. He has been in private practice in the Twin Cities for 25 years. He has a J.D., cum laude, from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul and a B.A. in History from the University of Minnesota. His reported cases include: Asociacion Nacional de Pescadores a Pequena Escala o Artesanales de Colombia v. Dow Quimica de Colombia, 988 F.2d 559, rehearing denied, 5 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1041 (1994); LaMott v. Apple Valley Health Care Center, 465 N.W.2d 585 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991); Abo el Ela v. State, 468 N.W.2d 580 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).
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