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B.B. v. Methodist Church of Shelbina

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, Third Division

December 19, 2017

B.B., Appellant,

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Shelby County 13SB-CC00002 Honorable John J. Jackson.


         B.B. ("Appellant") appeals the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the Methodist Church of Shelbina, Missouri ("the Shelbina Church" or "the Church") and the Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church ("the Conference") (collectively, "Respondents") on Appellant's action seeking compensatory and punitive damages relating to sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of the Shelbina Church's former youth director. We affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. The Uncontroverted Facts Giving Rise to this Appeal

         This appeal involves claims against two entities within the United Methodist Church. The first is the Shelbina Church, a local church which is comprised of an autonomous and self-governing congregation. The Church is a separate and distinct Missouri non-profit corporation.

         The Conference, a Missouri non-profit corporation, provides structure for the practice of "conferencing" for the clergy and lay members of the United Methodist Church. Clergy and lay members of local churches are Conference members, not the local churches themselves. The Conference only manages and supervises activities that it organizes; it has no supervisory authority over local churches. Specifically relevant to this appeal, the Conference has no supervisory authority over hiring and firing decisions of local United Methodist churches, including those of the Shelbina Church.

         1. The Shelbina Church's Hiring of Christopher Sprinkel

         In 2003 or 2004, the administrative board for the Shelbina Church decided the Church needed to hire a full-time youth director. The position was advertised, and the Church received applications from several interested candidates. One of these applicants was Christopher Sprinkel, who provided the Shelbina Church with his resume and a reference letter. Although Sprinkel's most recent employer listed on the resume was the Sugar Creek United Methodist Church, the Shelbina Church did not contact his supervisor or any other member of that church. Further, the Shelbina Church did nothing to determine the accuracy of the information contained in Sprinkel's resume.

         During the hiring process, the Shelbina Church's pastor, Virgil Clow ("Pastor Clow"), obtained a criminal background check on Sprinkel from a company called ScreenNow. The ScreenNow search revealed "[n]o record found" on a "State Sexual Offender Search in [Illinois]" and "[n]o record found" on a "National Criminal File Search." The Church relied on the ScreenNow report although it included a disclaimer that accuracy was not guaranteed.

         After applications for the youth director position were collected and reviewed by Pastor Clow, they were passed along to the Church's Pastor-Parish Relations Committee. The Pastor-Parish Relations Committee then reviewed the applications, conducted interviews of three applicants, and ultimately selected Sprinkel for the job. The decision to hire a youth director, and specifically to hire Sprinkel, was made by members of the Shelbina Church without knowledge or involvement of the Conference.

         2. Sprinkel's Employment with the Shelbina Church

         Sprinkel began working as the Shelbina Church's youth director in approximately June 2004. Sprinkel was assisted in this position by the assistant youth director, Dee Ide, and was supervised by Pastor Clow on behalf of the Shelbina Church. Sprinkel's duties included planning and coordinating children's and youth programs and activities with a goal towards growing the Church's youth ministry so as to ultimately expand its membership as a whole. Sprinkel's job as the youth director contained a religious component as it involved educating children on the religious doctrine of the United Methodist Church, planning literature for the youth to study, praying with the children, and reading scripture from the Bible.

         To effectuate the position's goals and duties, Sprinkel established an after-school youth program at the Shelbina Church that was held every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday during the school year. The after-school program was designed to give youth of the Church a place to go and "hang out" after school. Sprinkel also conducted a more formal youth group on Sunday evenings, which had a greater focus on religious studies than the after-school program. Additionally, every fifth Sunday of a month was designated "Youth Sunday" and Sprinkel gave the sermon to the full congregation.

         The Shelbina Church determined Sprinkel's continued employment as the youth director would be conditioned upon being "Safe Sanctuaries" certified. The Conference, which among other things, conducts statewide meetings and camping trips for youth, developed the Safe Sanctuaries certification program to screen and train adults who worked or volunteered at Conference events to help ensure the proper care and treatment of the children or youth who attend those events. The Safe Sanctuaries program was also offered as a model to local churches to help them develop their own policies and programs to prevent child abuse. While Safe Sanctuaries certification requires, in addition to training, that all persons participating in Conference events submit to a background screening, the screening "was intended to only be used as a screening device for Conference activities." The Safe Sanctuaries program was not intended to be used by local churches to screen their own employees or volunteers for non-Conference activities, and the Conference instructed churches not to use it for non-Conference purposes. However, the Conference knew local churches were disregarding this warning and using the Safe Sanctuaries program to screen their own employees.

         Sprinkel went through the Safe Sanctuaries program after he was hired by the Shelbina Church. His information was submitted to the Safe Sanctuaries program, and a background check was obtained by the Conference which disclosed: no criminal history or sex offender registration information on file with the Missouri State Highway Patrol; no employee disqualification list information on file with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services; no employee disqualification registry on file with the Missouri Department of Mental Health; and no child abuse or neglect information on file with the Missouri Department of Social Services. Sprinkel was also required to submit three reference forms to the Conference, including one from his employer and two additional references. Sprinkel submitted reference forms completed by Pastor Clow, who was his supervisor at the time he underwent the screening, as well as Allen Hickerson and Shawn Burnley. Each form submitted to the Conference rated Sprinkel as "excellent" or "good" in character, morality, ability to relate to youths, and ability to relate to children.[1] The Conference took no steps to follow up on the information contained in the reference forms, but instead accepted all positive or negative responses on the form and determined Sprinkel was Safe Sanctuaries certified.

         In November 2004, the Shelbina Church adopted its own Safe Sanctuary policy ("the Policy"). Among other guidelines, the Policy included a provision that two adults should always be present during activities where youth or children were present. Pastor Clow took steps to enforce this Policy, such as checking on youth activities and questioning volunteers to ensure they were never alone with the children or youth. Sprinkel was aware of this Policy.

         3. Appellant's Interactions with Sprinkel and the Incident Giving Rise to Appellant's Claims

         Sometime in the fall of 2005, Appellant began attending the Shelbina Church's after-school youth program, where Appellant would see Sprinkel approximately one or two times per week. Appellant, who was twelve years old at the time, attended the after-school program because his friends went, it was fun, and he could play video games and basketball.

         On the afternoon of January 6, 2006, Appellant's school was released early that day, so Sprinkel invited Appellant to come to his house to play video games until it was time to go to the Church's after-school program. Although Sprinkel's wife was present when Appellant first arrived, she left shortly thereafter to run an errand. During the time Sprinkel was alone with Appellant, Sprinkel showed Appellant pornography on the computer and touched Appellant's genitals. Immediately after, Appellant left Sprinkel's house, went home, and reported the incident to his father. Based on Sprinkel's actions against Appellant on January 6, 2006, Sprinkel was convicted by a jury of first-degree child molestation.

         4. Information Discovered after Sprinkel's Molestation of Appellant

         After the allegations against Sprinkel came to light, Pastor Clow's wife, who also served as the Shelbina Church's secretary, conducted an internet search about Sprinkel. Ms. Clow found articles written before Sprinkel was hired by the Church that were about a prior criminal case filed against Sprinkel in the Circuit Court of Logan County, Illinois. Although Sprinkel was acquitted in the case, it involved an incident of sexual molestation of a child.

         After the incident involving Appellant occurred, Pastor Clow held meetings with some of the parents of children attending the Church's youth programs. As a result, Pastor Clow learned that in August 2005, Sprinkel invited at least two other boys from the Church's after-school program to his house and showed them pornography.

         B. Relevant Procedural Posture

         Appellant filed his original petition alleging various claims against Respondents on January 7, 2013. During the course of the litigation, however, Appellant was twice granted leave of the court to file amended petitions. On December 10, 2015, Appellant filed his Second Amended Petition asserting the following ten claims: (I) child sexual abuse; (II) battery; (III) breach of fiduciary/confidential relationship; (IV) failure to supervise children; (V) negligent supervision of Sprinkel; (VI) negligent infliction of emotional distress; (VII) intentional failure to supervise Sprinkel; (VIII) breach of duty to adopt and implement preventative measures/failure to warn; (IX) fraud/misrepresentation; and (X) Restatement (Second) of Torts, section 324(A) (1965).[2] [3] Subsequently, Respondents each filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court ultimately granted and entered summary judgment in favor of Respondents on all of Appellant's remaining claims. This appeal followed.


         Appellant raises six points on appeal, which we will discuss in the following order. In his third and sixth points on appeal, Appellant asserts the trial court erred in granting summary judgment as to Counts III through VIII and Count X on First Amendment grounds.[4] In his fifth point on appeal, Appellant maintains the trial court erred in granting summary judgment on Count VII because the uncontroverted facts demonstrated Appellant could not establish an element of his claim. Then, in his first point on appeal, Appellant contends the trial court erred in granting summary judgment on Counts I and II because it found the Church could not be held liable for Sprinkel's intentionally tortious acts.

         A. Standard of Review

         A trial court's decision to grant summary judgment is an issue of law this Court reviews de novo. Doe v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis, 347 S.W.3d 588, 590 (Mo. App. E.D. 2011) ("Doe II"). Summary judgment is proper only if there are no genuine issues of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id. We review the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, accepting all reasonable inferences in favor of that party as true. Id. at 591. We accept facts contained in affidavits or otherwise produced in support of the motion for summary judgment as true unless they are contradicted by the non- movant's response to the motion. Id. A defendant may establish its right to judgment as a matter of law by showing one of the following: "(1) facts that negate any one of the elements of the claimant's cause of action; (2) the non-movant, after an adequate period of discovery, has not and will not be able to produce evidence sufficient to allow the trier of fact to find the existence of any one of the claimant's elements; or (3) there is no genuine dispute as to the existence of each of the facts necessary to support the movant's properly-pleaded affirmative defense." Id.

         If the movant succeeds in establishing its right to judgment as a matter of law, the non-moving party must show that at least one of the material facts asserted by the moving party as undisputed is, in fact, genuinely disputed. Id. However, only genuine disputes of material facts will preclude summary judgment, and to prove such a dispute exists, the non-moving party may not rely on mere allegations or denials of the pleadings, but must produce affidavits, depositions, answers to interrogatories, or admissions on file. Doe v. Ratigan, 481 S.W.3d 36, 41 (Mo. App. W.D. 2015); Doe II, 347 S.W.3d at 591. In the summary judgment context, a fact is material only if it is one from which the right to judgment flows. Ratigan, 481 S.W.3d at 41 (citing Goerlitz v. City of Maryville, 333 S.W.3d 450, 453 (Mo. banc 2011)).

         We will affirm the grant of summary judgment on any legal theory supported by the record, whether or not it was the basis relied upon by the trial court. Owners Insurance Company v. Parkison, 517 S.W.3d 608, 612 (Mo. App. E.D. 2017); Ratigan, 481 S.W.3d at 41.

         B. The Trial Court's Grant of Summary Judgment as to Counts III-VIII and Count X

         We begin our analysis with Appellant's third and sixth points on appeal, which challenge the trial court's finding that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution ("the Establishment Clause") precluded the court from entertaining a number of Appellant's claims. Specifically, the court granted summary judgment as to Counts III-VIII and Count X on First Amendment grounds. Before we proceed to the merits of Appellant's claims on appeal, we must first consider the implications of the First Amendment in this case.

         1. A Threshold Issue - The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment

         The Establishment Clause provides in relevant part, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . .." U.S. Const., Amend. I. The Establishment Clause, as part of the First Amendment, applies to the states by incorporation into the Fourteenth Amendment. Gibson v. Brewer, 952 S.W.2d 239, 246 (Mo. banc 1997).[5] The provision's mandate applies to any exercise of state power, including judicial decision on a state's common law. Id.

         a. The Seminal Case: Gibson v. Brewer

         In Gibson v. Brewer, the Missouri Supreme Court grappled with the implications of the Establishment Clause in a case involving allegations of sexual abuse by a priest. Id. at 243-44, 246-50. The plaintiff alleged the priest had touched him inappropriately and reported the occurrence to his parents. Id. at 243. The parents then reported the incident to the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, the governing body of the Church, which did not respond in a satisfactory manner to the plaintiff's parents. Id.

         The plaintiff filed an action against the Diocese in tort, alleging both claims of negligence and intentional acts. Id. at 243-44. Specifically, the plaintiff pleaded nine counts including battery, negligent hiring/ordination/retention, negligent failure to supervise, negligent infliction of emotional distress, breach of fiduciary duty, conspiracy, agency liability, and independent negligence of the Diocese. Id. The significant issue addressed by our Supreme Court was whether tort claims involving negligence and intentional acts may or may not be pursued against a religious organization for the conduct of its clergy. See id. at 246-50.

         In its analysis on this issue, the Gibson Court reviewed United States Supreme Court and Missouri court precedent and explained:

Questions of hiring, ordaining, and retaining clergy [ ] necessarily involve interpretation of religious doctrine, policy, and administration. Such excessive entanglement between church and state has the effect of ...

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