Monday, June 8, 2015

The Life Monastic

The Connecticut Appellate Court affirmed the imposition of punitive damages in a case where the plaintiff had given donations for chapel construction under the false belief that the defendant was a Benedictine monastery.

The Diocese of Norwich had issued a pious union decree in 1979 but the decree did not lead to recognition by the church. 

Pursuant to that decree, the union consisted of ‘‘Sister Mary Peter [also known as Dorothy Jordan], professed Sister of the Benedictine Community in Stillwater, Massachusetts and one secular Oblate, Eleanor J. Tremko, by name.’

The plaintiff's story

After her initial visit to the defendant in August, 2008, the plaintiff quickly became involved in all of its activities...She participated in bible study groups and various fundraising events, mostly with the goal of raising the money to build the new chapel. She developed a close relationship with women she believed to be Roman Catholic nuns who were involved with the defendant, including Jordan, whom she respected. On August 23, 2009, because she had been spending so much time with and contributing financially to the defendant, the plaintiff transferred her oblation from the monastery in Nebraska to the defendant.

An "oblate" is defined

Sister Sally J. Tolles, a canon and civil lawyer employed by the diocese, testified at trial that oblates are ‘‘laypeople who associate themselves with monasteries or abbeys or priories in order to say that they will help in a spiritual way or in a financial way with the needs of the community . . . .’’

The defendant had never been accorded recognized Benedictine status

On February 17, 2011, Bishop Cote sent a letter to the plaintiff advising her, among other things: that the defendant was not, and never had been, a Benedictine monastery; that the residents at Mount Caritas were not Benedictine sisters; that the defendant did not have permission from the diocese to build a Roman Catholic chapel; and that the defendant did not have permission to solicit money or to sell items in any Roman Catholic parish in the diocese. The plaintiff testified that this was the first time that she had heard anything disputing the defendant’s status as a monastic community. Upon receipt of the bishop’s letter, the plaintiff was in disbelief. Based on the pious union decree that Jordan had shown her, along with Jordan’s prior representation she plaintiff believed that the defendant had been a monastery for thirty-five years.

 The court

The record in this case is replete with evidence of the defendant’s portrayal of itself as a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery. The record is likewise laden with evidence that Jordan knew that the defendant was not, in fact, a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery. The plaintiffs testified that they would not have given money to the defendant if they had known that it was not a Roman Catholic institution. Although Jordan apprised the plaintiff of the contentious relationship between the defendant and the diocese, and the plaintiff later was informed by the diocese that the defendant was not a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery, Jordan repeatedly assured the plaintiff that the diocese was lying. The plaintiff continued to trust Jordan and thus continued to fund the construction of the chapel.

The court respected the jury verdict

 The jury reasonably could have concluded that the defendant repeatedly and intentionally, over a period of years, misrepresented itself to the plaintiff as a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery, knowing that that was the type of community that she was searching for in which to continue her work as an oblate. The evidence amply supported a finding that the defendant intentionally misrepresented its status to induce the plaintiffs to fund the construction of the chapel, and that, in so doing, it displayed a reckless indifference to the rights of the plaintiffs. We therefore conclude that the court did not abuse its discretion in denying the defendant’s motion to set aside the verdict with respect to the plaintiffs’ entitlement to punitive damages.

The Hartford Courant had this story.

The trial court decision is linked here. (Mike Frisch)

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