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Doe v. Coe

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Second District

March 30, 2018

JANE DOE, a Minor, by her Mother and Next Friend, Jane A. Doe, and by her Father and Next Friend, John Doe; JANE A. DOE; and JOHN DOE, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
CHAD COE; THE FIRST CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH OF DUNDEE, ILLINOIS; and PASTOR AARON JAMES, Defendants (The First Congregational Church of Dundee, Illinois, and Pastor Aaron James, Defendants-Appellees).

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Kane County. No. 15-L-216 Honorable James R. Murphy, Judge, Presiding.

          JUSTICE BIRKETT delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Hutchinson and Jorgensen concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          BIRKETT JUSTICE.

         ¶ 1 Plaintiffs, Jane Doe (Jane), Jane A. Doe, and John Doe, appeal the dismissal with prejudice of their second amended complaint against defendants, the First Congregational Church of Dundee, Illinois (FCCD), and its pastor, Aaron James. The complaint alleged that Chad Coe sexually groomed and ultimately raped[1] Jane while Coe was employed as FCCD's director of youth ministries and Jane was a member of FCCD's youth group, which was overseen by Coe. For the following reasons, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.

         ¶ 2 I. BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 A. Plaintiffs' Original and First Amended Complaints

         ¶ 4 Plaintiffs filed their initial complaint in August 2015. They named several defendants, including Coe, James, and FCCD. FCCD is a local congregation of the United Church of Christ (UCC) that employed James and Coe during the relevant period. Plaintiffs also named the UCC itself and various entities within its loosely hierarchical organization (collectively, the UCC defendants).

         ¶ 5 In January 2016, on the motion of FCCD and James, the trial court dismissed without prejudice the counts against them. Plaintiffs filed their first amended complaint in February 2016. They alleged four causes of action against both FCCD and James: negligent supervision, negligent retention, "willful and wanton failure to protect, " and "willful and wanton retention and failure to supervise." Against FCCD, plaintiff additionally alleged negligent hiring. The core allegations of the complaint described a two-year period, from 2011 through 2013, in which Coe abused his position as FCCD's youth director through various forms of sexual misconduct toward female minors who were members of FCCD's youth and confirmation groups. A particular focus of the allegations was Jane, whom Coe subjected to persistent sexual advances before raping her in June 2013.

         ¶ 6 In the negligent-hiring count, plaintiffs alleged that, if FCCD had searched Coe's online activity prior to hiring him, it would have discovered that Coe maintained profiles on several websites that featured adult or child pornography. In the remaining counts, plaintiffs alleged that FCCD and James failed to properly supervise Coe. They also alleged that FCCD and James knew or should have known of Coe's misconduct prior to the rape of Jane.

         ¶ 7 James, FCCD, and the UCC defendants filed motions to dismiss plaintiff's first amended complaint, pursuant to section 2-619.1 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-619.1 (West 2014)). James and FCCD also moved the trial court to strike, as irrelevant or cumulative, certain paragraphs of the first amended complaint, in case the court denied the motions to dismiss or granted them with leave to refile. FCCD and James sought to have stricken, inter alia, paragraphs alleging how FCCD and James responded after Jane disclosed the rape and Coe was arrested for it.

         ¶ 8 The trial court agreed with FCCD and James that the counts against them failed to state a cause of action. As to the negligent-hiring count against FCCD, the court reasoned that an online search of Coe's name would not necessarily have disclosed his activity on pornographic websites, because, according to the complaint, he conducted that activity under a pseudonym. As to the remaining counts, the court found nothing in the complaint to indicate that either FCCD or James was or should have been aware of Coe's malfeasance prior to his sexual assault of Jane.

         ¶ 9 The court denied plaintiffs leave to replead any of the counts against James or the willful-and-wanton counts against FCCD. First, the court reasoned that, if plaintiffs could not adequately plead simple negligence after two attempts, there was scant chance of their success on a subsequent attempt to plead willful and wanton conduct (which is an aggravated form of negligence (see Doe-3 v. McLean County Unit District No. 5 Board of Directors, 2012 IL 112479, ¶ 19)). Second, the court held that, while James's acts or omissions as an agent of FCCD might form the basis for FCCD's liability, James could not be held personally liable.

         ¶ 10 The court dismissed the negligence counts against FCCD without prejudice. The court also granted in its entirety FCCD and James's motion to strike portions of the first amended complaint.

         ¶ 11 The court dismissed with prejudice the counts in the first amended complaint that were particular to the UCC defendants. Subsequently, we reversed that dismissal and remanded for further proceedings. See Doe v. Coe, 2017 IL App (2d) 160875.

         ¶ 12 Plaintiffs filed a motion to reconsider the dismissals of the counts against FCCD and James. The court granted the motion only to the extent of permitting plaintiffs to replead the negligence counts against James.

         ¶ 13 B. Plaintiffs' Second Amended Complaint

         ¶ 14 1. Overview of Counts Against FCCD and James

         ¶ 15 In December 2016, plaintiffs filed their 70-page second amended complaint, which is the subject of this appeal. Plaintiffs renewed their various claims against Coe and their claims against FCCD and James for negligence and willful and wanton conduct. They pled 16 counts in total. Counts I through VII named only Coe. James alone was named in counts VIII (negligent supervision), IX (negligent retention), X (willful-and-wanton failure to protect), and XI (willful- and-wanton retention and failure to supervise). FCCD alone was named in counts XII (negligent hiring), XIII (negligent supervision), XIV (negligent retention), XV (willful-and-wanton failure to protect), and XVI (willful-and-wanton retention and failure to supervise).

         ¶ 16 We organize the general and specific allegations under the following headings:

         ¶ 17 2. The UCC, the IUCC, and the Safe Church Policy

         ¶ 18 Plaintiffs alleged that the UCC is "a religious organization composed of Local Churches, Associations, Conferences, and a General Synod organized in a hierarchical structure." The UCC has an entity called the Insurance Board, one purpose of which is to "assist in creating and maintaining safe church environments within the UCC organization, including, but not limited to, Local Churches." On August 21, 2006, the Insurance Board "sent a letter to the UCC and its sub-entities to provide expectations and recommendations regarding the adoption of written safe church abuse prevention policies at UCC Local Churches." The August 21 letter contained recommended " 'Internet Safety Guidelines' " (ISG). The ISG restricted adult-minor online interaction and barred "improper" or "offensive" online content. The letter also contained a sample policy on " 'Appropriate and Inappropriate Affection Between Staff and Children, ' " which provided specific examples of such inappropriate contact.

         ¶ 19 Following the August 21 letter from the Insurance Board, the general counsel for the UCC (General Counsel) sent a letter to local churches within the UCC "regarding compliance with the Insurance Board's recommendations." The General Counsel included in the letter "a sample safe church policy that the General Counsel drafted pursuant to the Insurance Board's recommendation for a more comprehensive safe church policy for Local Churches." On November 18, 2006, the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ (IUCC) "approved the 'Safe Church Policy-Abuse Prevention' policy" (SCP), which was based on the safe church policy provided by the General Counsel.

         ¶ 20 As FCCD is a local church within the IUCC, "[FCCD] employees and volunteers were required to read and follow the [SCP]" and "to sign a disclosure statement attesting to and acknowledging the [SCP]." The SCP required that (1) all employees and volunteers undergo a background check prior to working with minors, (2) "at least two adults be present to supervise any minor youth or child activities, " and (3) "incidents of child abuse observed by employees or volunteers *** be reported to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services[.]" The SCP also defined "sexual exploitation" and "sexual harassment."

         ¶ 21 3. FCCD's Hiring of Coe

         ¶ 22 Plaintiffs alleged that, when Coe was hired as youth director by FCCD, his father, Douglas Coe (Douglas), "held a senior position within the UCC as an Association Council Member of [the Fox Valley Association]" (FVA), which is an "Association" within the IUCC. In hiring Coe, FCCD relied on the recommendation of Douglas or the FVA and performed no further investigation into Coe's background or fitness for the position.

         ¶ 23 In their specific allegations within the negligent-hiring count (count XII) against FCCD, plaintiffs alleged that FCCD "failed to conduct even a basic, cursory Google search, or any investigation into the background and fitness of Coe for the position of Director of Youth Ministries in violation of church policy." They further alleged:

"A basic, cursory Google search into the online public presence of Coe would have revealed Coe's activity, which included posting public photos of his own genitalia, on numerous websites, such as, 'newbienudes, ' 'motherless, ' 'wouldyouhitthis, ' 'ratemybody, ' 'ratemymelons, ' and 'datehookup, ' among many others."

         ¶ 24 In their general allegations-incorporated into the negligent-hiring count-plaintiffs elaborated on the nature of Coe's online presence:

"127. At all times relevant, Coe maintained public online profiles under his name and under the username 'BluesGod88' that could be found using a basic, cursory Google search.
128. At all times relevant, Coe commonly 'friended' employees, volunteers, and members of [FCCD], including members of the Youth Group[, ] on social media sites.
129. At all times relevant, Coe commonly 'friended' employees, volunteers, and members of [FCCD], including members of the Youth Group, of [sic] social media sites on which he maintained profiles as 'BluesGod88.'
130. At all times relevant, Coe maintained profiles as 'BluesGod88' on numerous pornographic Adult Obscenity or Child Pornography Internet Sites.
132. At all times relevant, Coe posted Obscene, pornographic images of himself, including his genitals and erect penis, on the internet using 'BluesGod88' profiles."

         ¶ 25 The complaint did not identify when FCCD hired Coe, but it alleged that his misconduct occurred from 2011 through 2013 and that FCCD fired him on November 12, 2013. FCCD hired James in May 2009 as its senior pastor. In that capacity, James was "the master and direct supervisor of Coe[.]"

         ¶ 26 Coe's responsibilities as FCCD's youth director "included, among other things, counseling of youth members and the planning and execution of all programming for the confirmation class, as well as the middle and high school youth ministries at [FCCD]."

         ¶ 27 Coe worked from an office inside FCCD's building. His office was near other church administrative offices, such as James's office. Coe and James typically were present together in the building on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (normal working hours) and for church services and special events.

         ¶ 28 4. Coe's Misconduct at FCCD

         ¶ 29 a. General Misconduct Involving Female Minors

         ¶ 30 Plaintiffs devoted 28 pages of their complaint to an inventory of Coe's alleged misconduct at FCCD. Some of the conduct is described in detail, but other descriptions are vague and make frequent use of the capitalized catchall term, "Inappropriate, " which plaintiffs defined early in the complaint to encompass:

"Inappropriate Content, Inappropriate Displays of Affection, Sexual Harassment and Sexual Exploitation, as defined by UCC policies and materials, as well as conduct or materials defined by Illinois law to be Grooming, Sex Offenses, Harmful to Minors, Obscene, Adult Obscenity or Child Pornography Internet Site."

         ¶ 31 Our recapitulation of the misconduct allegations is not exhaustive, and need not be. In this appeal, Coe's conduct is relevant only as it impacts the potential liability of FCCD and James. We are concerned particularly with alleged violations of the SCP by FCCD and James and with allegations suggesting that they were or should have been aware of Coe's unfitness for his position.

         ¶ 32 Some of Coe's misconduct at FCCD is not alleged to have directly impacted others in the church. For instance, Coe is alleged to have used FCCD's computers to visit and maintain profiles on websites with adult and child pornography and to store pornographic pictures.

         ¶ 33 The remaining misconduct involves members of FCCD's youth and confirmation groups, which Coe oversaw as FCCD's youth director. There are separate paragraphs in the complaint for misconduct involving Jane in particular and for misconduct that Coe directed toward multiple unnamed female minors who were members of the youth or confirmation groups at FCCD. As for the latter, general misconduct, Coe is alleged to have used his cellular phone and FCCD's computers to (1) store pornographic images of underage female members of the youth group, (2)store pornographic images of himself and send them to underage female members, and (3)" 'friend' " underage female members on social media sites and "discuss [their] romantic relationship or sexual relationships, " in violation of the ISG.

         ¶ 34 This general misconduct toward underage female members of the youth and confirmation groups also allegedly included in-person misconduct. Plaintiffs alleged the following misconduct by Coe, "commonly" or "habitually" with underage female members: (1) making inappropriate physical contact, (2) making sexually suggestive remarks and engaging the members in sexually-charged banter and games, and (3) showing the groups videos with "Inappropriate sexual content, " including pornographic content. Plaintiffs specifically described the types of touches, remarks, games, and movies that constituted Coe's misconduct.

         ¶ 35 Plaintiffs alleged no dates for the foregoing misconduct, except for an instance that occurred at a "Confirmation event" in 2011. Infra ¶ 43.

         ¶ 36 b. Misconduct Involving Jane

         ¶ 37 Plaintiffs alleged that Jane was the victim of a campaign of grooming by Coe that occurred from 2011 through 2013. According to plaintiffs, the grooming "escalated" during the summer of 2012, when Jane was 14 years old and Coe was 30 years old. Coe psychologically manipulated Jane to increase her trust and emotional dependence on him. He "encouraged [Jane] to spend large amounts of time telling Coe about intimate details of her life[.]" He "stressed to [her] the importance of and necessity for secrecy and cautioned her repeatedly against telling anyone about the 'relationship' between [them]."

         ¶ 38 Plaintiffs alleged that Coe used FCCD's computer equipment to communicate with Jane. Coe sent her sexually explicit pictures and videos, including some of himself. He also "gradually encourage[d] and convince[d] [Jane] to remove her clothing during 'games' of 'truth or dare.' " Coe accessed and viewed sexually explicit images of Jane.

         ¶ 39 In late 2012 and in 2013, Coe "began to make Inappropriate physical contact with Jane Doe, including kissing [her] and touching [her] in a sexual manner." Coe encouraged Jane to use the pretext of church activities to visit him at his office at FCCD during normal working hours. Coe "isolated [Jane] in areas of the church building, such as the downstairs classroom, the sacristy, and the audio-visual booth, where Coe kissed [Jane] and touched her in a sexual manner." During at least one occasion when Coe played a movie for the youth group, he sat with Jane in the back of the room and fondled her. Coe would also make sexual comments to Jane. For instance, he developed a pet name for her genitalia and used it "openly in front of other youths."

         ¶ 40 In June 2013, Coe convinced Jane to volunteer at FCCD's vacation bible school (VBS), a daytime summer program for elementary-age children. Coe presented it as a way for the two to be alone together. On June 14, 2013, Doe and Jane were alone together in a basement classroom of the church when he raped her on a couch. The assault occurred during normal working hours.

         ¶ 41 c. Visibility of Coe's Misconduct

         ¶ 42 Plaintiffs alleged that Coe was the only adult present "[d]uring many of the times that [he] engaged in acts of sexual innuendo and suggestion and other forms of Inappropriate physical and sexual conduct with Youth Group participants[.]" Coe was also the only adult present with the youth group when he showed them videos with sexual content. Coe was "habitually alone" on FCCD's premises with underage female members of the youth group. He would "habitually isolate[ ] minor female members of the Youth Group for 'private lessons' *** and would send away other Youth Group members who would attempt to watch or otherwise be present for the 'private lessons.' "

         ¶ 43 In what follows, we recite verbatim the allegations on which plaintiffs rely in this appeal for their position that FCCD and James knew or should have known of Coe's unfitness for his position as ...


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