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Doe v. Sovereign Grace Ministries, Inc.

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

June 26, 2014


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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Appeal from the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Sharon V. Burrell, Judge.

Argued by: Susan L. Burke (Burke, PLLC on the brief, of Washington, D.C.) William T. O'Neil (The O'Neil Group LLC on the brief, of Bethesda, MD). for Appellant.

Argued by: Paul J. Maloney (Alexander M. Gormley, Carr, Maloney PC on the brief; of Washington, D.C.) Thomas P. Ryan (Jonathan R. Clark, Amy L. Leone McCarthy, Wilson LLP on the brief; of Rockville, MD). for Appellee.

Panel: Eyler, Deborah S., Berger, Graeff, JJ. Opinion by Eyler, Deborah S., J.


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[217 Md.App. 655] Deborah S. Eyler, Judge.

In this multi-party case, the notice of appeal was filed prematurely and is not effective. When an effective notice of appeal could have been filed, it was not. None of the appellate rule " savings clauses" apply. Accordingly, this Court lacks jurisdiction and the appeal must be dismissed as not permitted by law. See Biro v. Schombert, 285 Md. 290, 293, 402 A.2d 71 (1979) ( appellate court must dismiss appeal sua sponte if it determines that appellate jurisdiction is lacking).

In October 2012, in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, three plaintiffs, Jane Doe,[1] Renee Palmer Gamby [217 Md.App. 656] (then using a pseudonym), and Dara Sutherland (then using a pseudonym), filed suit against Sovereign Grace Ministries, Inc. (" SGM" ); five individuals affiliated with Covenant Life Church (" CLC" ) in Maryland: Charles Mahaney, Lawrence Tomczak, John Loftness, Guy Ricucci, and Grant Layman (collectively " the Maryland Defendants" ); and three individuals affiliated with Sovereign Grace Church of Fairfax (" the Fairfax Church" ) in Virginia: David Hinders, Louis Gallo, and Frank Ecelbarger.

Four months later, in January 2013, the plaintiffs filed a first amended complaint (" FAC" ) that added five new plaintiffs: Heather Thompson Bryant (then using a pseudonym), Carla Coe, Grace Goe, Karen Koe, and Karl Koe.[2] The FAC also added

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five more defendants: CLC, the Fairfax Church, the Covenant Life School, Inc. (" the School" ), and two individuals affiliated with the Fairfax Church: Mark Mullery and Vince Hinders. (We shall refer to the individual defendants affiliated with the Fairfax Church as " the Virginia Defendants." )

The next month the defendants filed motions to dismiss the FAC on numerous bases, including that most of the claims were time-barred. They complained that several of the plaintiffs were not revealing their ages to prevent the defendants from determining whether their claims were time-barred. The Virginia Defendants and the Fairfax Church argued that the court lacked personal jurisdiction over them. The court scheduled a hearing on the motions to dismiss for May 17, 2013.

Three days before the hearing, the plaintiffs filed a second amended complaint (" SAC" ). The SAC added three more plaintiffs -- James Roberts, Jessica Roberts-Thomas, and Donna Doe -- and listed the months and years of birth for all eleven plaintiffs.[3] The dates of birth revealed that, when the [217 Md.App. 657] complaint was filed in October 2012, the plaintiffs were between the ages of 17 and 38. The two youngest plaintiffs were Jane Doe, then age 17, and Karen Koe, then age 18.

In the SAC, the plaintiffs alleged that each of them (with one exception not relevant to our discussion) had been sexually molested and, in some cases, physically abused by either an individual defendant, an employee of a defendant, or a parishioner of one of the defendant churches. The abuse had been perpetrated when the plaintiffs were minors, although there were allegations that for some plaintiffs the abuse continued after they reached the age of majority. The plaintiffs alleged that the abuse had been reported to the defendants, but that the defendants negligently failed to report the abuse to the police or to any other " secular authorities" ; negligently retained employees known to have abused children and allowed them to supervise children; made intentional misrepresentations about the abuse to other parishioners and to the police; and engaged in a conspiracy to cover up the abuse and to discourage the plaintiffs and their families from reporting the abuse to " secular authorities."

Simultaneous with the filing of the SAC, the plaintiffs filed a supplemental memorandum of law addressing the statute of limitations issues. They argued that their causes of action did not accrue until August 2011 because that is when they first discovered, by reading a blog, that the defendants had engaged in a conspiracy to obstruct justice.

The hearing on the motions to dismiss the FAC went forward on May 17, 2013. With the consent of the parties, the arguments addressed the allegations of the newly operative SAC. The defendants conceded that the claims brought by Jane Doe and Karen Koe were not time-barred. The defendants argued that the claims of the remaining nine plaintiffs were time-barred and that the court lacked personal jurisdiction over the Fairfax Church and the Virginia Defendants affiliated with it.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the court ruled from the bench. It granted the motion to dismiss with prejudice on [217 Md.App. 658] statute of limitations grounds on the claims of all the plaintiffs except Jane Doe and Karen Koe. Because Jane Doe and Karen Koe both were residents of Virginia and had alleged tortious conduct occurring in Virginia, perpetrated by the Fairfax Church and the Virginia Defendants, the

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circuit court dismissed without prejudice all claims against those defendants for lack of personal jurisdiction but ordered that the claims against those defendants could not be re-filed in Maryland. (In other words, those claims could be re-filed, but only in Virginia.) The court dismissed with prejudice all claims against the School for failure to sue the proper corporate entity.[4] Finally, the court dismissed Jane Doe and Karen Koe's claims against SGM, CLC, and the Maryland ...

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