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Abrams v. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc.

August 06, 1999


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Hartman

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. Honorable Joseph Casciato, Judge Presiding.

JUSTICE HARTMAN delivered the opinion of the court:

Plaintiff Gregory L. Abrams, once a member of the Jeffrey Valley Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, brought suit against individual members of that congregation and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York (sometimes collectively defendants), alleging that defendants conspired to remove him from the congregation by causing two female members to accuse him falsely of grave and serious sins. After the circuit court dismissed counts contained in his original and two amended complaints, with leave to amend, plaintiff filed his third amended complaint. Upon defendants' motion, the court dismissed plaintiff's third amended complaint. Plaintiff appeals, claiming that the circuit court erred in dismissing his third amended complaint and in dismissing counts contained in his first and second amended complaints. For reasons which follow, we affirm.

On August 8, 1995, plaintiff brought his original complaint against defendants, alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, fraud, defamation and invasion of privacy. As the bases for his claims, plaintiff alleged that in 1979, he "officially" joined the Jeffrey Valley Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, after years of attending services there, and from 1979 through early 1991, he was "very active" in the congregation, performing services and participating in activities. Although not employed by the congregation, plaintiff was rewarded with "promotions" up to the position of "Ministerial Servant" within the congregation, one position below that of "Elder," the highest-ranking position. Sometime in December 1990, Stacy Cross, another member of the congregation, allegedly falsely accused plaintiff of "serious" and "grave" sins. *fn1 Cross brought her claims before the Body of Elders, the governing body of the congregation. In February 1991, another member of the congregation, Lisa Harris-Temple, submitted a letter to the Body of Elders also allegedly falsely accusing plaintiff of "serious sins."

Plaintiff's complaint asserts that both Harris-Temple and Cross had been solicited by members of the Body of Elders to fabricate the allegations, in an attempt to prevent him from becoming an Elder and with the intent to destroy his "good name and reputation in the community." To that end, the Body of Elders asked Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York to publish the allegations against plaintiff, made a "public" statement about his "sins" to the congregation, removed him from his position as Ministerial Servant, cancelled his subscription to the national publication "Watchtower," demoted him, prevented him from taking part in congregational activities, and "made numerous misstatements and misrepresentations to [p]laintiff and others in furtherance of their scheme." Plaintiff further alleged in his original complaint that he "suffered extreme and severe emotional distress for which [he] required professional psychological treatment" and his "personal livelihood and real estate appraisal business suffered and was damaged" as a result of defendants' actions.

Responding to plaintiff's original complaint, defendants filed a "combined" motion to dismiss pursuant to sections 2-615 and 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-615, 2-619 (West 1996) (section 2-615) (section 2-619)). Defendants raised the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine as a bar to the circuit court's subject matter jurisdiction and further asserted that plaintiff's complaint failed to state a cause of action. Alternatively, defendants argued that the statute of limitations barred plaintiff's defamation and invasion of privacy claims. On October 10, 1996, the circuit court dismissed with prejudice those counts alleging negligent infliction of emotional distress. Further, the court struck the remainder of plaintiff's complaint, but granted him leave to amend.

On November 25, 1996, plaintiff filed an amended complaint, detailing, with greater specificity, the allegedly false accusations made against him by Cross and Harris-Temple: Cross had accused him of "calling her on the telephone when her husband was not home, coming over to her house and commenting that her dress looked nice"; Harris-Temple had accused him of "commenting that the colors of her dress and sweater went well together." Plaintiff re-alleged that these false accusations were solicited by the Body of Elders in an attempt to destroy him personally, professionally and his affiliation with the congregation. His amended complaint articulated five counts of intentional infliction of emotional distress, five counts of defamation and five counts of invasion of privacy.

Defendants moved to dismiss plaintiff's amended complaint, again invoking the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. On May 29, 1997, the circuit court dismissed plaintiff's amended complaint, finding the facts alleged did not support a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The court again granted plaintiff leave to amend, however, advising him to "keep it secular" and to "plead a fraud or conspiracy."

On June 26, 1997, plaintiff filed his second amended complaint, alleging the same facts as in previous complaints and seeking recovery for one count of "conspiracy to defame," three counts of defamation, one count of "conspiracy to invade privacy" and one count of "conspiracy," based upon breach of fiduciary duty. Defendants filed motions to dismiss plaintiff's second amended complaint, raising, inter alia, the statute of limitations and the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. On December 3, 1997, the circuit court granted defendants' motion, dismissing plaintiff's defamation and "conspiracy to invade privacy" claims as time-barred, but allowing plaintiff leave to amend the remainder of his complaint.

A third amended complaint was filed by plaintiff on December 31, 1997, which contained a single count entitled, "Conspiracy." Plaintiff alleged the same facts as in previous complaints and also that he relied upon statements made by Otis Temple, a member of the Body of Elders, who "falsely represented to [p]laintiff that there was nothing [plaintiff] could do to clear his name or otherwise appeal the wrongful conduct of the Defendants." Plaintiff further alleged that the acts of which he complained were in furtherance of the alleged conspiracy and "committed by the Body of Elders with knowledge of the falsity of the accusations or with a reckless disregard of such falsity and thus, with actual malice."

Defendants moved to dismiss plaintiff's third amended complaint, repeating the ground, inter alia, that plaintiff's claim was barred by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. Prior to ruling, the circuit court noted that plaintiff's third amended complaint alleged "no underlying tort" and, although the third amended complaint alleged a "conspiracy," it was not specific as to its nature. At the hearing on this motion, plaintiff's attorney explained to the court that plaintiff was alleging a conspiracy to defraud.

On April 22, 1998, the circuit court dismissed with prejudice plaintiff's third amended complaint in its entirety. Finding that plaintiff's third amended complaint failed to allege "an underlying tort," the court dismissed the complaint. The court further held that the "demotion and the expulsion [of plaintiff] required a doctrinal decision by the [E]lders [a]nd[,] even if they knew that these statements were true, these statements in and of themselves are not right or wrong."

Plaintiff purports to appeal not only from the circuit court's April 22, 1998, order dismissing his third amended complaint, but "from previous Orders of the Court regarding Defendants' Motions to Dismiss, in favor of the Defendants."

A section 2-615 motion challenges the legal sufficiency of the complaint and admits all well-pleaded facts together with all reasonable inferences which can be drawn from those facts. American Health Care Providers, Inc. v. County of Cook, 265 Ill. App. 3d 919, 922, 638 N.E.2d 772 (1994); Lawson v. City of Chicago, 278 Ill. App. 3d 628, 634, 662 N.E.2d 1377 (1996). The issue to be considered by such a motion is whether significant facts are contained in the pleadings, which, if established, would entitle the complainant to relief. Bryson v. News America Publications, Inc., 174 Ill. 2d 77, 84, 672 N.E.2d 1207 (1996). No cause of action will be dismissed on the pleadings unless it appears clearly that no set of facts can be proved which will entitle the complainant to recovery. ...

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