Wednesday, July 3, 2013
Court Rejects Challenge to Judgment Against Japanese Church
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A tort judgment obtained in Japan against a Japanese church and its founder may be enforced in this country without violating the First Amendment or any other fundamental public policy, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
Affirming a $1.2 million judgment against Yuko Yasuma and the Saints of Glory Church, the Ninth Circuit held that the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom wasn’t implicated because the enforcement of a foreign judgment isn’t “state action.” Nor did the defendants show that the case falls under the “repugnant to the public policy” exception to the Uniform Foreign-Country Money Judgments Recognition Act, Judge Marsha Berzon wrote for the court.
The plaintiff, Naoko Ohno, sued the church in Tokyo District Court, and won a judgment in 2009, which was upheld on appeal.
According to the factual findings of the Japanese court, as summarized by Berzon in her opinion, Ohno joined the church in 1994, regularly attending services and tithing. Over time, however, she was pressured by Yasuma to donate more and more money, culminating in a January 2002 phone conversation lasting several hours.
Over the next two months, the court found, Ohno was “overcome with terror and compelled to tithe.” She closed out her bank account and transferred virtually all of her assets—68,678,424 yen, about $500,000 at the time, and more than $680,000 at current rates of exchange—to the church.
She went to live in a church-owned apartment, but was told a year later that she “had not been obedient to Jesus Christ” and was no longer in the church’s good graces. She had to leave the apartment, and resumed taking antidepressant medication before she began attending a different church.
Anxiety and Terror
The court concluded that the church had taken advantage of the plaintiff’s depressed state “to incite anxiety and cause terror” in order to overcome her will with respect to her donations. It awarded her the full amount of her 2002 donations, plus 3 million yen for pain and suffering and 7.2 million yen for attorney fees.
U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright found the Japanese judgment enforceable and awarded a U.S. judgment for the full amount, plus interest.
Berzon said the district judge was correct.
The constitutional argument, the appellate jurist explained, fails because foreign governments are not bound by the U.S. Constitution or by any U.S. state’s constitution. The fact that a foreign court has granted judgment based on conduct that would have been constitutionally protected had it occurred in the United States does not, therefore, in and of itself, constitute grounds to deny enforcement of the judgment, she said.
The district court, in granting judgment under the Uniform Act, applies foreign law, not U.S. or state law, and thus is not a state actor, Berzon wrote. Nor is the plaintiff a state actor merely because she is using California law to attempt to enforce her judgment, she added.
The court, she emphasized, was not addressing the issue of whether there might be other circumstances in which conduct occurring outside the United States would have First Amendment protection.
With regard to the public-policy exception, Berzon went on to write, the defendants had a high bar to meet, citing a case holding that the exception will only apply if the foreign judgment is based on a law that is ““so antagonistic to California [or federal] public policy interests as to preclude the extension of comity.”
She distinguished cases in which American courts have refused to enforce English libel judgments, based on the “stark differences” between English law and ours, including the burden placed on English defendants to prove the truth of statements regarding public figures.
Those principles, she pointed out in a footnote, have now been codified in the Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage, or SPEECH, Act. The law makes foreign defamation judgments unenforceable in the United States unless they would be upheld under the U.S. Constitution and the constitution of the state where enforcement is sought.
Berzon emphasized that those standards have not been applied to non-defamation judgments, and said the alleged conflict between the judgment in Ohno’s case and U.S. and California public policy regarding religious freedom was far less clear.
“[I]t is highly debatable, at least, whether tort liability could be imposed on the Church for inducing Ohno’s Transfers, and the ultimate determination of that question would be highly fact-dependent. As the Japanese cause of action and judgment in this case are not antithetical to the Religion Clauses, they are not repugnant to California or U.S. public policy in the sense required by the exception in California’s Uniform Act.”
Judges Harry Pregerson and Susan Graber joined in the opinion.
Steven J. Renick of Manning & Kass Ellrod, Ramirez, Trester argued the case for the defendants, while Robert W. Cohen responded for the plaintiff.
The case is Ohno v. Yasuma, 11-55081.
Copyright 2013, Metropolitan News Company