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Samaria Iglesia Evangelica, Inc. v. Lorenzo

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

November 1, 2019

SAMARIA IGLESIA EVANGELICA, INC.[1] Plaintiff,
v.
HECTOR LORENZO, JOSE DAVID OSORIO, NANCY MARIN, AIDA L. PEREZ, ELIEZER ANDUJAR, and IGLESIA DE DIOS CRISTO EL REY, INC. Defendants.

          ORDER ON CROSS MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND MOTION TO STRIKE (DOC. NOS. 64, 73, 78)

          LEO T. SOROKIN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Samaria Iglesia Evangelica, Inc. (“Samaria PR”) levels two claims against Defendants Lorenzo, Osorio, Perez, Andujar, and Iglesia de Dios Cristo el Rey: (1) that the Defendants intentionally interfered with Samaria PR's alleged contractual relations with Samaria Evangelical Church, Inc. (“Samaria MA”); and (2) that the individual Defendants breached the terms of his or her putative employment agreement with Samaria PR.[2] Also pending are Defendants' two counterclaims alleging: (1) that certain communications made by Samaria PR were defamatory; and (2) that Samaria PR's communications interfered with, or attempted to interfere with, the Defendants' exercise or enjoyment of their rights to property in violation of the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 12 § 11H. Now before the Court are (1) Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment on both its own claims and the two counterclaims; and (2) Defendants' Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiff's claims, as well as on its own counterclaims.

         I. BACKGROUND[3]

         Founded in 1949, Samaria PR is a church corporation organized under the laws of Puerto Rico with a principal office in Puerto Rico. Doc. No. 73-3. Samaria MA, on the other hand, is a church corporation organized under the laws of Massachusetts and has, since June 21, 1971, been registered with the Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth. Doc. No. 18-2. Samaria MA was incorporated by Samaria PR agents with the stated purpose of “establishing and maintaining the public worship of God, in accordance with the principles of the Bible and the Samaria Evangelical Church Rules with head curator in Palmer, Puerto Rico.” Doc. No. 18-1 (quoting Samaria MA's June 21, 1971 Articles of Incorporation). Since its inception, Samaria MA has had both a spiritual and monetary relationship with Samaria PR. See, e.g., Doc. No. 16-18 (listing funds that Samaria MA sent to Samaria PR in a “[m]onthly report on offerings and tithes”). According to Angel L. Ortiz, the director of Samaria churches in the United States, Samaria MA is contractually obligated to pay dues to Samaria PR, an obligation that derives, in his telling, from the Samaria MA Articles of Incorporation, which references Samaria PR's “Rules.” Doc. No. 64-7 at 6. However, Mr. Ortiz also confirms that there is no independent contract-aside from the Samaria MA Articles of Incorporation-which mandates the payment of dues. Id. The Defendants, for their part, dispute that the Samaria MA Articles of Incorporation impose this obligation. Doc. No. 73-1 at 8.

         While Samaria PR has claimed that it was Samaria MA's “de facto parent corporation at all relevant times, ” this Court determined that “when Samaria PR agents incorporated Samaria MA, they simply formed a Massachusetts church corporation, elected a board of directors, but created no special role for Samaria PR in the governance of Samaria MA” as a corporation, even if they continued to exert religious influence over Samaria MA. Doc. No. 31 at 6-7. For example, on March 14, 1978, when Samaria MA acquired a property located at 367 Dudley Street, Roxbury, Massachusetts, the deed to the property was recorded in Samaria MA's name alone. Doc. No. 32-3.

         In 2008, Samaria PR appointed Defendant Osorio to be Samaria MA's pastor. Doc. No. 1-8. In a signed document memorializing the appointment, Osorio agreed to comply with certain enumerated requirements, including to “[p]reserve the properties received and [to] not make any transactions with them without prior authorization.” Id. Defendants Andujar, Marin, and Perez signed identical documents memorializing their appointments as evangelist, admonisher, and co-pastor, respectively. Doc. No. 26. On November 16, 2015, persons purporting to be regular attendees at Samaria MA, including Defendant Osorio and other individual Defendants, held a meeting and elected the individual Defendants to be the new directors of Samaria MA. Doc. No. 18-1 ¶¶ 41-42. The Secretary of the Commonwealth recorded a notice of the change of directors on November 18, 2015. Id. ¶ 43.

         On March 31, 2016, Defendant Osorio submitted a letter of resignation to Samaria PR's Council Board. Doc. No. 16-8. On April 4, 2016, Defendants Osorio, Perez, and Andujar incorporated a new church, Defendant Iglesia de Dios Cristo el Rey, Inc. (“Dios Cristo el Rey”), by filing articles of organization with the Secretary of the Commonwealth. Doc. No. 64-14. Days later, Samaria MA, acting through its new directors, sold the 367 Dudley Street property for $10 to Dios Cristo el Rey. Defendant Osorio represented Dios Cristo el Rey in the sale. Doc. No. 18-1 ¶ 46. Defendant Lorenzo, acting on behalf of Samaria MA, prepared a quitclaim deed in connection with the sale. Doc. No. 18-2 at 23-25. The following day, on April 15, 2016, Defendants Marin and Andujar submitted letters of resignation to Samaria PR's Council Board. Doc. No. 32-9.

         Upon learning of the sale of the 367 Dudley Street property, Samaria PR strenuously objected. On June 27, 2016, Samaria PR sent a letter to “Jose David Osorio and any person that along with him took illegal possession of our temple.” Doc. No. 1-11 (English translation of “Circular Letter #7”). In the letter, the Governing Body of Samaria PR wrote that it “ha[d] NOT authorized any change in the incorporation of [their] church in Boston MA, ” contending that “[a]ny change made to [the church incorporation] is illegal.” Id. Further, the letter stated that Osorio and the other individual Defendants had “embezzled, committed fraud, and kidnapped [Samaria PR's] property which is a felony with serious potential consequences to those involved.” Id. Finally, the letter ordered Osorio “and his rebellious group” to return the 367 Dudley Street property to Samaria PR, warning that “[n]ot following this order will bring forth grave personal and group consequences before the system of justice for the committed crimes.” Id. According to Mr. Ortiz, the director of Samaria churches in the United States, “[t]his letter left Puerto Rico” and was distributed to Samaria pastors and workers. Doc. No. 64-7 at 14.

         Additionally, Samaria PR sent a second letter on June 27, 2016 to “[a]ll the Pastors and Ministers with churches under their supervision in the Foreign Work.” Doc. No. 34-2 (English translation of “Informative Letter #2”). This letter “remind[ed] our pastors that all the workers of Chicago and Boston that rebelled were expelled from the Mission.” Id. at 2. It also stated these workers had “illegally seized our properties and will soon be channeled in the court by the Attorney General for fraud and crimes.” Id. Mr. Ortiz once again confirmed that this letter was circulated to Samaria pastors. Doc. No. 64-7.

         Samaria PR initially brought this lawsuit to challenge both Samaria MA's election of new directors and the sale of the church property. Doc. No. 31 at 3. However, this Court dismissed all claims that Samaria PR asserted on behalf of Samaria MA, holding that Samaria PR was not a “resident member” of Samaria MA and thus lacked standing. Id. at 7. Now, Samaria PR moves for summary judgment on its only remaining claims: (1) that the Defendants intentionally interfered with Samaria PR's alleged contractual relations with Samaria MA (Count 7 of the First Amended Complaint); and (2) that the individual Defendants breached the terms of his or her putative employment agreement with Samaria PR (Count 8 of the First Amended Complaint). In response, the Defendants cross-move for summary judgment on Samaria PR's claims and summary judgment on their own counterclaims: (1) that both Circular Letter #7 and Informative Letter #2 were defamatory (Counterclaim 1); and (2) that Samaria PR's communications interfered with, or attempted to interfere with, the Defendants' exercise or enjoyment of their rights to property in violation of the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act (“MCRA”), Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 12 § 11H (Counterclaim 2).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate when “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Once a party “has properly supported its motion for summary judgment, the burden shifts to the non-moving party, who ‘may not rest on mere allegations or denials of his pleading, but must set forth specific facts showing there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Barbour v. Dynamics Research Corp., 63 F.3d 32, 37 (1st Cir. 1995) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256 (1986)). The Court is “obliged to [] view the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and to draw all reasonable inferences in the nonmoving party's favor.” LeBlanc v. Great Am. Ins. Co., 6 F.3d 836, 841 (1st Cir. 1993). Even so, the Court is to ignore “conclusory allegations, improbable inferences, and unsupported speculation.” Prescott v. Higgins, 538 F.3d 32, 39 (1st Cir. 2008) (quoting Medina-Muñoz v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 896 F.2d 5, 8 (1st Cir. 1990)). A court may enter summary judgment “against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). When cross-motions for summary judgment are presented, the Court “must consider each motion separately” and draw all inferences against each moving party in turn. Reich v. John Alden Life Ins. Co., 126 F.3d 1, 6 (1st Cir. 1997).

         III. DISCUSSION

         The Court first considers Samaria PR's two remaining claims alleging intentional interference with contractual relations and breach of employment contracts. Then, the Court considers Defendants' two counterclaims, which allege defamation and violation of the MCRA, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 12 § 11H.

         A. Samaria PR's Claims

         As to Samaria PR's claims, the Court first considers Defendants' cross-motion for summary judgment on these claims. In so doing, the Court resolves all disputes of genuine material fact in Samaria PR's favor, as well as drawing all reasonable inferences in its favor.

         1. Intentional Interference with Contractual Relations

         Samaria PR asserts that Defendants have prevented and continue to prevent Samaria MA from paying dues owed to Samaria, thus intentionally interfering with contractual relations between the two church entities. Doc. No. 18-1 at 10. To succeed on a claim for intentional interference with contractual relations, Samaria PR must demonstrate that (1) Samaria PR had a contract with Samaria MA; (2) that Defendants knowingly induced Samaria MA to break the contract; (3) that Defendants' interference was intentional and improper in motive or means; and (4) that Samaria PR was harmed by Defendants' actions. Am. Paper Recycling Corp. v. IHC Corp., 707 F.Supp.2d 114, 122 (D. Mass. 2010). In order to defeat Defendants' cross-motion for summary judgment on this claim, Samaria PR must, in the first instance, submit admissible evidence sufficient to support a finding of the existence of a contract between Samaria PR and Samaria MA. Samaria PR identifies two different sources of the contractual relationship between the churches; however, neither theory succeeds.

         a. Samaria MA's ...


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