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Americans United for Life v. Legion of Christ of North America, Inc.

Superior Court of Rhode Island

January 4, 2017


         Providence County Superior Court

          For Plaintiff Bernard A. Jackvony, Esq.; Samantha McCoy Clarke, Esq.; Rebecca M. Murphy, Esq.

          For Defendant Joseph Avanzato, Esq.; Nicole J. Benjamin, Esq.


          SILVERSTEIN, J. [1]

         Before the Court is Defendants'-The Legion of Christ North America, Inc., (Legion of Christ) et al. (Defendants)-Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff Americans United for Life's (Americans United for Life) Complaint pursuant to Rule 12 of the Rhode Island Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure. Americans United for Life advances several claims against Defendants, including fraud, undue influence, tortious interference with expectation of inheritance, and civil conspiracy. The Court has jurisdiction pursuant to G.L. 1956 §§ 8-2-13 and 8-2-14.


         Facts and Travel

         On May 18, 2008, Mrs. Gabrielle D. Mee, a devout Catholic, passed away. Throughout her lifetime, Mrs. Mee was exceptionally generous, specifically to organizations that she believed were committed to advancing the moral teachings of her faith. Two of those organizations-Americans United for Life and the Legion of Christ-are currently before this Court. Americans United for Life is a pro-life, nonprofit, public interest organization located in Washington, D.C. The Legion of Christ-one of the many named Defendants in this action-is an order of the Catholic Church with which Mrs. Mee became familiar in the late 1980s. In addition to giving substantial gifts to these two organizations during her lifetime, Mrs. Mee also sought to provide for them beyond her death, bequesting different gifts to each as exhibited in the several versions of her will. The apparent changes in Mrs. Mee's testamentary intent, as reflected by the multiple iterations of her will, form the basis of Americans United for Life's claims. To provide context to this lawsuit, the Court will briefly summarize other recent litigation surrounding Mrs. Mee's estate.[2]

         In 1991, Mrs. Mee executed a will in which she directed that ninety percent of her estate go to the Legion of Christ and that the remaining ten percent go to Americans United for Life. Compl. ¶ 44. However, in 1995, Mrs. Mee executed a codicil that revoked her ten percent gift to Americans United for Life and directed that her entire estate go to the Legion of Christ. Id. at ¶ 45. In 2000, Mrs. Mee executed her final will, which revoked the 1991 will and 1995 codicil, named Father Anthony Bannon, a member of the Legion of Christ, as her estate's executor, and directed that her entire estate go to the Legion of Christ.[3] During this period of time, Mrs. Mee also had several trusts, which she used to benefit the Legion of Christ. Id. at ¶¶ 37, 39-42. In 2009, after Mrs. Mee's passing, Father Bannon petitioned the Smithfield Probate Court to admit the 2000 will that named the Legion of Christ as the estate's sole beneficiary. A year later, the Smithfield Probate Court admitted the 2000 will to probate. The probate court's admission of the 2000 will to probate culminated in the Rhode Island Supreme Court's decision in Dauray v. Mee, 109 A.3d 832 (R.I. 2015)-a will contest brought by Mrs. Mee's niece, Mary Lou Dauray, which was dismissed for lack of standing.

         In December 2013, while the Dauray case was pending in the Rhode Island Supreme Court, Americans United for Life received a phone call from Ms. Dauray's attorney alerting it to its interest as a ten-percent beneficiary of Mrs. Mee's estate under the 1991 will. AUL I, 2016 WL 5957196, at *2. Based on that phone call, on March 14, 2014, Americans United for Life moved to intervene in Ms. Dauray's appeal.[4] Id. However, the Rhode Island Supreme Court denied the motion to intervene on May 21, 2014. Id.

         The Rhode Island Supreme Court issued its decision in Dauray on February 6, 2015. On August 19, 2015, Father Bannon filed an affidavit with the Smithfield Probate Court seeking to close Mrs. Mee's Estate. AUL I, 2016 WL 5957196, at *2. Less than one month later, on September 3, 2015, the Smithfield Probate Court closed her estate. Id. Subsequently, in a second effort to contest the validity of Mrs. Mee's 2000 will, Americans United for Life petitioned to reopen Mrs. Mee's estate and probate the 1991 will entitling the organization to ten percent of her estate. Id. at *3. The Smithfield Probate Court denied that petition, a decision with which this Court concurred in a reasoned decision. Id. at *3, *7.

         In the case at bar, Americans United for Life asserts a bevy of allegations against Defendants, which primarily focus on the Legion of Christ's founder and former General Director, Father Marcial Maciel Delgollado (Father Maciel).[5] Mrs. Mee was introduced to Father Maciel sometime in the late 1980s after her husband passed away. Compl. ¶ 19. After she met Father Maciel, Mrs. Mee began making substantial gifts to the Legion of Christ. Id. at ¶ 22. For example, in 1989 Mrs. Mee gave the Legion of Christ a $1, 000, 000 gift, followed by a $3, 000, 000 gift in 1991. Id. at ¶ 22. In 1991-the same year Mrs. Mee executed a will benefitting Americans United for Life-Mrs. Mee expressed to Father Maciel that she wanted to become a consecrated woman in Regnum Christi, an organization under the control of the Legion of Christ. Id. at ¶ 25. One requirement to become a consecrated woman is to take a vow of poverty. Id. at ¶ 26. Regnum Christi specifically required that consecrated women donate half of their assets to the Legion of Christ after fifteen years, with all remaining assets donated after twenty-five years. Id. Moreover, in addition to having set requirements regarding age and years of study, Regnum Christi required consecrated women to promise that all of their future earnings would go to the Legion of Christ. Id. at ¶¶ 26-27.

         In November of 1991, Mrs. Mee became a consecrated woman. Id. at ¶ 27. She was able to do so after Father Maciel waived the age and years of study requirements. Id. She then moved to the Regnum Christi facility in Wakefield, Rhode Island. Id. at ¶ 30. In 1996, due in part to Mrs. Mee's donations, the Legion of Christ bought a new facility in Smithfield, Rhode Island, where Mrs. Mee and the other consecrated women moved. Id. at ¶ 32. According to the allegations in Americans United for Life's Complaint, from the late 1980s to the time of her passing in 2008, Father Maciel and Defendants exercised significant influence over Mrs. Mee through a pattern and practice of concealing from her communications from the outside world, including restricting her from access to news media. Id. at ¶ 33.

         Father Maciel, who led the Legion of Christ from its founding in the 1940s until 2005, led a sordid life. Id. at ¶¶ 20-21. In the late 1990s, during the time when Mrs. Mee was living in the Regnum Christi facility, a news article and subsequent Vatican-led investigations publically revealed that Father Maciel was, among other things, a serial sexual abuser. Id. at ¶¶ 61-63, 83. In May of 2010, after Father Maciel had died, the Vatican issued a scathing report regarding his gross misconduct. Id. at ¶ 86. Due to the influence of the Legion of Christ and other Defendants, Mrs. Mee was unaware of these allegations. Id. at ¶¶ 33, 76, 89. Based on her varying testamentary wishes, however, had Mrs. Mee known of Father Maciel's behavior, she may have severed ties with the Legion of Christ-including removing the Legion of Christ from the 2000 will. Id. at ¶¶ 87-89.

         According to Americans United for Life, Mrs. Mee placed a great deal of trust in Defendants and their members, even giving to Father Bannon power of attorney over her financial affairs. Based on this trusting relationship, Americans United for Life alleges that Mrs. Mee was induced into giving millions of dollars in gifts to Defendants-namely the Legion of Christ-during her lifetime and in her will. For Americans United for Life, Defendants' long-term tortious efforts extinguished Americans United for Life's ten percent interest in Mrs. Mee's estate under the 1991 will and reduced the assets in Mrs. Mee's estate.

         On June 22, 2016, Americans United for Life filed the present lawsuit.

          II Standard of Review

         "The 'sole function of a motion to dismiss is to test the sufficiency of the complaint.'" Martin v. Howard, 784 A.2d 291, 297 (R.I. 2001) (quoting R.I. Affiliate, ACLU, Inc. v. Bernasconi, 557 A.2d 1232, 1232 (R.I. 1989)). In testing the sufficiency of the complaint, the "'Court assumes the allegations contained in the complaint to be true and views the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs.'" Id. at 297-98 (quoting St. James Condo. Ass'n. v. Lokey, 676 A.2d 1343, 1346 (R.I. 1996)); see also Palazzo, 944 A.2d at 149. Our Supreme Court has long adhered to the rule that "no complaint will be deemed insufficient unless it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the plaintiff will be unable to prove his right to relief [.]" Bragg v. Warwick Shoppers World, Inc., 102 R.I. 8, 12, 227 A.2d 582, 584 (1967). Accordingly, a motion to dismiss "should not be granted 'unless it appears to a certainty that [the plaintiff[] ] will not be entitled to relief under any set of facts which might be proved in support of [its] claim.'" Martin, 784 A.2d at 298 (quoting St. James Condo. Ass'n, 676 A.2d at 1346).

         III Discussion

         In its Complaint, Americans United for Life, as a prior beneficiary under Mrs. Mee's 1991 will, asserts claims of fraud, undue influence, tortious interference with expectation of inheritance, and civil conspiracy against Defendants. Americans United for Life also requests injunctive relief in the form of a constructive trust. Much of the argument in this case has centered on Americans United for Life's third count, tortious interference with expectation of inheritance. Although the Rhode Island Supreme Court has not yet addressed whether such a claim is cognizable under Rhode Island law, see Henry v. Sheffield, 856 F.Supp.2d 345, 350 (D.R.I. 2012), Americans United for Life argues that the Legion of Christ and other Defendants tortuously interfered with its expected ten percent inheritance through means of fraud and undue influence. Americans United for Life includes those same means of fraud and undue influence as separate causes of action in its Complaint. In addition, Americans United for Life asserts that Defendants engaged in a civil conspiracy to tortiously remove Americans United for Life from Mrs. Mee's 1991 will and divert financial assets from Mrs. Mee to Defendants during her lifetime.

         In moving to dismiss each of those claims, Defendants argue that: (1) tortious interference is not a cognizable cause of action under Rhode Island law; (2) even if this Court were to recognize it, Americans United for Life has not pled or alleged that it lacked an adequate remedy in the Probate Court-a required showing by many courts that have recognized this claim; (3) any claim of fraud against Defendants fails as a matter of law because such a claim belonged to Mrs. Mee not to Americans United for Life; (4) undue influence, without more, is not an independent cause of action; and (5) because each of those allegations fail to state a claim for which the law provides relief, there is no tortious conduct on which Americans United for Life can base its civil conspiracy claim. In addition, Defendants ask this Court to dismiss Americans United for Life's claim for injunctive relief, because they argue that too does not assert an independent cause of action.

         The Court will address each of Americans United for Life's claims in turn.

         A ...

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