Church That Left Woman Penniless Must Pay Up

     (CN) – A church that allegedly induced a sickly depressed woman to donate all of her money must pay a $1.2 million judgment ordered by a Japanese court, the 9th Circuit ruled Tuesday.
     The federal appeals court in Pasadena affirmed recognition and enforcement of a 2009 ruling in Tokyo against Yuko Yasuma and the Los Angeles-based Saints of Glory Church. Japanese citizen Naoko Ohno sued Yasuma and the church in 2007 for allegedly forcing her with threats of eternal damnation to hand over about $500,000, leaving her penniless.
     Ohno, a former financier who joined the church in late 1990s, claimed that Yasuma and others had taken advantage of her depression and ataxia in 2002 to get her money. She said Yasuma had convinced her over the years to stop taking medication for depression, to ignore her family, to interpret the Bible literally and to greatly fear the fires of hell. Yasuma often told her that she did not “need her head,” Ohno claimed in a 2010 complaint.
     After a series of discussions with Yasuma in 2002, Ohno was “overcome with terror and compelled to make offerings,” according to the complaint. She gave the church nearly all of her money, but was later kicked out for failing to “repent.”
     The Tokyo District Court found, and Japan’s highest appellate court agreed, that Yasuma and Saints of Glory were liable for “illegally inducing Ohno to tithe ‘in such a way as to incite anxiety and cause terror to the plaintiff who was already in [a] state of depression and was suffering from general ataxia.'” (Brackets in original).
     Ohno filed a successful federal action in Los Angeles for recognition and enforcement of the Japanese court’s $1.2 million judgment, but the church appealed to the 9th Circuit on religious-freedom grounds.
     The church argued that enforcement of the judgment violated its rights under the federal and state constitutions, and that the verdict should be shot down as “repugnant to the public policy,” as defined in state law.
     A three-judge panel unanimously affirmed enforcement of the judgment Tuesday, finding that it was not a “state action” and therefore ineligible for “constitutional scrutiny.”
     “Recognizing and enforcing a foreign-country money judgment is distinct from rendering that judgment in the first instance,” Judge Marsha Berzon wrote for the panel (emphasis in original). “The District Court, in giving effect to the judgment issued in Japan, has not participated in the action the church claims is unconstitutional – namely, judging the truth or falsity of the church’s religious teachings or imposing liability for the consequences of religious expression. In the absence of such participation, we conclude the district court’s recognition and enforcement of the Japanese damages award in this case does not transform the underlying foreign court’s ruling into domestic ‘state action’ subject to constitutional scrutiny.”
     And while Ohno’s claims may not have made it in a U.S. court, there is nothing particularly “repugnant” about the judgment, the panel concluded.
     “To the extent that Ohno’s claim amounted to one for merely negligent infliction of emotional distress as a result of facially religious conduct, it may not have been cognizable under California law,” Berzon wrote. “But California courts have pronounced no bar to claims for negligent infliction of economic injury, and Ohno clearly asserted pecuniary losses as well as pain and suffering. Moreover, the reason the California Court of Appeal has given for barring recovery from religious entities for the negligent infliction of emotional distress is not that such liability necessarily offends the Religion Clauses, but rather that religious organizations have no duty of care to avoid causing their members emotional injury. If such a duty of care exists under Japanese law, this difference from California law does not denote repugnance to a public policy embodied in the Religion Clauses.”
     Steven Renick, who argued the case for the church, said Tuesday that he was still reviewing the ruling and could not comment about the future of the case.

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