NEW YORK DOES NOT RECOGNIZE CAUSE OF ACTION FOR CLERGY MALPRACTICE
Wende C. and David C. v. United Methodist Church, 776 NYS2d 390 (4th
Plaintiffs commenced this lawsuit against the pastor of their former
church and various ecclesiastical entities and officials, seeking
punitive and compensatory damages for pain and suffering and mental
anguish allegedly sustained as a result of an adulterous relationship
between plaintiff Wende C. and the pastor. Wende C. and her husband
David C. were allegedly receiving pastoral counseling at the time the
adulterous relationship started. Plaintiffs sued for sexual battery,
intentional infliction of emotional distress, clergy malpractice,
negligent ordination of the pastor, and vicarious liability of the
church for the pastor's actions. Supreme Court, Monroe County, denied
plaintiffs' Motion for summary judgment and instead granted summary
judgment to defendants, who had not moved for such relief. The
Appellate Division affirmed.
As for the clergy malpractice claim, "no such cause of action is
cognizable in New York, because any attempt to define the duty of
care owed by a member of the clergy to a congregant or parishoner
would result in excessive entanglement on the part of the court in
matters of religion." Another of the plaintiffs' causes of action,
for "breach of fiduciary duty," basically alleged that the pastor
abused his position of trust, and this is in essence the same as
clergy malpractice, which is not a recognized tort in New York. A
clergyman's fiduciary duties are indistinguishable from his or her
duty of care, and the courts will not get involved in deciding
whether a clergyman was negligent in the fulfillment of his pastoral
duties, or whether he was morally and ethically upright.
The sexual battery cause of action fails because there is no proof of
lack of consent. The evidence showed that Wende C. and the pastor
had a mutual romantic relationship, and therefore the sexual touching
was consensual, and not a battery.
The cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress
was dismissed because the plaintiff could not prove "extreme and
outrageous" conduct that went "beyond all possible bounds of decency,
and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a
civilized community," which is the standard for that tort.
And finally, in regard to the claim that the church was negligent in
its ordination of the pastor, ordination is a "quintessentially
religious" activity, and "imposing liability for conferring that
status would excessively entangle the court in religious affairs, in
violation of the First Amendment."
The Complaint was dismissed. Two judges wrote a long dissent,
stating that the Court's decision "impermissibly insulates clerics
from all liability in a counseling context," and fails to recognize
the distinction between belief and conduct.
Comment: Watch for an appeal here.