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Richard A. Duncan v. Bervin Peterson and the Moody

December 30, 2010

RICHARD A. DUNCAN
PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
BERVIN PETERSON AND THE MOODY CHURCH, DEFENDANTS



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Lake County.No. 01--L--374 Honorable David M. Hall,Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Hutchinson

JUSTICE HUTCHINSON delivered the opinion of the court: Defendant, Erwin Lutzer, appeals the trial court's judgment entered on a jury verdict in favor of plaintiff, Richard Duncan, on plaintiff's complaint alleging claims of false light invasion of privacy and conspiracy. Defendant contends that the trial court erred when it failed to grant his motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. In the alternative, defendant contends that the trial court erred when it failed to grant a new trial. We affirm.

This matter was initiated when plaintiff and Hope Church filed a complaint against plaintiff's former church and its senior clergy after the senior pastor at the former church sent a bundle of letters to board members of Hope Church. The bundle of letters contained language accusing plaintiff of having an extramarital affair, filing a divorce petition against his wife, misusing church funds, and abusing alcohol. The bundle of letters also contained language purporting to strip plaintiff of his ordination as a minister and requesting that he no longer function in a ministerial capacity. The trial court initially determined that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applied and thus found that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear plaintiffs' claims. It granted defendants' motion for summary judgment. This court reversed, holding that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine did not apply. See Duncan v. Peterson, 359 Ill. App. 3d 1034 (2005). On remand, the jury found defendant, the senior pastor of the former church, liable and awarded plaintiff $276,306 in damages. Defendant appealed.

The evidence adduced at trial established the following. In 1989, plaintiff was ordained as a minister by the Moody Church. For the next several years, plaintiff worked in that capacity under defendant. In 1992, plaintiff resigned his position with the Moody Church in order to become the senior pastor for the Village Church of Lincolnshire. Subsequently, with the help of some fellow churchgoers, including Robert Dickman, Alvin Puccinelli, and Albert Nader, plaintiff founded Hope Church. Dickman, Puccinelli, and Nader became board members of Hope Church. In 2000, plaintiff's marriage experienced difficulties, and in March 2000 plaintiff's wife filed for divorce. Plaintiff sought and received an order of protection against his wife after she gave Puccinelli documents that she claimed were e-mails between plaintiff and another woman. Puccinelli gave the documents to Nader. During the divorce proceedings, Nader testified on behalf of plaintiff's wife, and plaintiff's wife accused plaintiff of abusing alcohol.

In late March 2000, Nader called defendant and informed him that plaintiff's marriage was in trouble. Subsequently, Dickman and Nader met with defendant and the board of elders of the Moody Church to discuss plaintiff's marriage. In April 2000 plaintiff received a letter dated April 23, 2000, and signed by "The Elders of Moody Church," including defendant. The letter provided in part:

"1. You have had an improper relationship with a divorced single woman, violating the Biblical teaching that an elder be 'above reproach.'

2. Your decision to file a divorce petition against your wife violates the Biblical admonition that husbands are to love their wives 'as Christ loved the church[.]'

3. Your misuse of alcohol violates the Biblical admonition that an elder be 'temperate, self-controlled.' ***

4. Your misuse of personal funds as well as the deceitful means used to obtain the Hope Church Bank account violates the Biblical admonition that an elder should not be a 'lover of money.' ***

We want to give you an opportunity to reply to these charges. If you contact any one of us before Thursday, May 4, 2000, we will be glad to set up a meeting with you to which we will invite the former members of your church Board, and if necessary, other witnesses. ***

If you do not reply to us by the May 4 date, we will have no choice but to rescind your ordination to the Christian ministry that we granted you."

In response to the letter, plaintiff contacted John Welch, a signatory of the letter. Plaintiff denied the allegations and inquired as to why the Moody Church was getting involved in his personal affairs.

On May 5, 2000, plaintiff received a second letter from the Moody Church, requesting that plaintiff appear in person in front of its executive committee. The letter stated in part:

"[Given] the seriousness of this matter, we have chosen this Monday evening, May 8, to make a final decision regarding your credentials for ministry that we conferred upon you. If you are unwilling to appear, with deep regret we will have to rescind your ordination and licensing."

Plaintiff did not attend the May 8, 2000, meeting of the Moody Church executive committee.

Plaintiff subsequently received a third letter from the Moody Church, dated May 9, 2000, and signed by defendant and another Moody Church elder, Bervin Peterson. The letter stated:

"This letter is to inform you that last night, May 8, 2000, the Executive Committee of the Moody Church, upon the recommendation of the Elders, voted to rescind the licensing and ...


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