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Williams v. Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses

Court of Appeals of Utah

March 21, 2019

Ria Williams, Appellant,
v.
Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses, Roy Utah; Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc; Harry Diamanti; Eric Stocker; Raulon Hicks; and Dan Harper, Appellees.

          Second District Court, Ogden Department The Honorable Mark R. DeCaria No. 160906025

          John M. Webster and Matthew G. Koyle, Attorneys for Appellant

          Karra J. Porter and Kristen C. Kiburtz, Attorneys for Appellees

          Judge Kate Appleby authored this Opinion, in which Judges Jill M. Pohlman and Diana Hagen concurred.

          OPINION

          APPLEBY, JUDGE.

         ¶1 Ria Williams appeals the district court's dismissal of her tort claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress and intentional infliction of emotional distress against defendants Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses, Roy Utah; Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc.; Harry Diamanti; Eric Stocker; Raulon Hicks; and Dan Harper (collectively, the Church). We affirm.

         BACKGROUND

         ¶2 Williams and her family attended the Roy Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses.[1] In the summer of 2007, Williams met another Jehovah's Witnesses congregant ("Church Member"). Williams and Church Member began seeing each other socially, but the relationship quickly changed and throughout the rest of the year Church Member physically and sexually assaulted Williams, who was a minor.

         ¶3 In early 2008 the Church began investigating Williams to determine whether she engaged in "porneia," a serious sin defined by Jehovah's Witnesses as "[u]nclean sexual conduct that is contrary to 'normal' behavior." Porneia includes "sexual conduct between individuals who are not married to each other." The Church convened a "judicial committee" to "determine if [Williams] had in fact engaged in porneia and if so, if was she sufficiently repentant for doing so." A group of three elders (the Elders)[2] presided over the judicial committee. Williams voluntarily attended the judicial committee with her mother and step-father. The Elders questioned Williams for forty-five minutes regarding her sexual conduct with Church Member.[3]

         ¶4 After questioning Williams about her sexual conduct, the Elders played an audio recording of Church Member raping Williams. Church Member recorded this incident and gave it to the Elders during their investigation of Williams. The recording was "several hours" in length. Williams cried and protested as the Elders replayed the recording. The Elders played the recording for "four to five hours" stopping and starting it to ask Williams whether she consented to the sexual acts. During the meeting Williams was "crying and physically quivering." Williams conceded she was able to leave but risked being disfellowshipped if she did.[4]

         ¶5 Williams continues to experience distress as a result of her meeting with the Elders. Her symptoms include "embarrassment, loss of self-esteem, disgrace, humiliation, loss of enjoyment of life," and spiritual suffering. Williams filed a complaint against the Church for negligence, negligent supervision, failure to warn, and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED).

         ¶6 In response to her complaint, the Church filed a motion to dismiss under rule 12(b)(6) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. Williams filed an amended complaint dropping her negligence claims and adding a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED) to the IIED claim. The Church filed a second motion to dismiss under rule 12(b)(6). The motion argued the United States and Utah constitutions barred Williams's claims for IIED and NIED.[5]

         ¶7 After considering the motions and hearing argument the district court dismissed Williams's amended complaint. It ruled that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution bars Williams's claims for NIED and IIED. The court ruled that Williams's claims "expressly implicate key religious questions regarding religious rules, standards, . . . discipline, [and] most prominently how a religion conducts its ecclesiastical disciplinary hearings." Although the allegations in the complaint were "disturbing" to the court, it ruled that the conduct was protected by the First ...


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