Wednesday, February 8, 2017
Court Rejects Claims Against Trustees of Church of Pastor Convicted of Embezzling
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A parishioner who raised money for, and donated to, his church cannot recover those funds from trustees whose acts or omissions led to the embezzlement of church moneys by the former pastor, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Div. Two, in an unpublished opinion by Justice Judith Ashmann-Gerst, said there was no error in granting Double Rock Baptist Church of Compton’s motion for summary judgment in an action brought by Howard M. Lewis.
Lewis filed suit in 2011, in a case that was later consolidated with more than 60 related actions. Lewis claimed that Pastor Eugene Joshua Sims and seven trustees converted church funds and gave the money to Sims, that they also increased Sims’s compensation and allowances in violation of church bylaws, and that they made Sims’s embezzlement of $1.6 million over a nine-year period possible through lax supervision.
He also accused Sims and the trustees of using church credit cards to pay personal expenses.
Sims pled no contest in 2010 to embezzling $874,000 from the church, and was sentenced to a year in jail and ordered to pay restitution. Charges of dissuading a witness and money laundering were dropped as part of a plea bargain.
Prosecutors claimed Sims deposited the money in a private bank account and then threatened members who questioned his handling of church finances.
Lewis claimed in his complaint that he would not have donated, tithed, or raised money had he been told the truth about the church’s finances. Instead, he alleged, the trustees knowingly misled him into believing that Sims was “trustworthy” and “honorable,” and that his money was going to charitable purposes.
On behalf of himself and other members, he alleged causes of action for breach of fiduciary duty, conversion, fraud, negligence, misrepresentation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other things.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John S. Wiley Jr. denied class certification and sustained a demurrer to the infliction-of-emotional-distress claim. He subsequently granted summary judgment as to all of the remaining claims.
In doing so, he held that the plaintiff’s admission that he gave the money to the church was fatal to his conversion claim, that his fraud and misrepresentation claims were time-barred, and that the claims for breach of fiduciary duty and negligence were barred by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
The Court of Appeal agreed with Wiley as to the merits, except as to the First Amendment issue, which it said the plaintiff waived by not arguing it in his opening brief.
Ashmann-Gerst explained that by making valid gifts to the church over the years, Lewis “relinquished both title and possession” to the money, so he had no claim for conversion. As to the fraud and conversion claims, she said the trial judge analyzed the statute of limitations issue correctly.
The evidence, the justice explained, established that by September 2008, Lewis knew that Sims was dishonest and untrustworthy, but that he waited until more than three years after that to file suit.
Attorneys in Lewis v. Double Rock Church of Compton, B265019, were Barbara Ann Jackson for the plaintiff and Matthew L. Kinley, Jennifer A. Lumsdaine, and Brandon L. Fieldsted of Tredway, Lumsdaine & Doyle for the defendants.
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