Husband Sues Church Over Wife’s Affair with Minister

Who can sue for damages resulting from an affair?

Church Law and Tax 1997-11-01

Sexual Misconduct-by Clergy and Church Workers

Key point. In many states, a husband is barred from suing a minister for seducing his wife and breaking up his marriage. The husband also may be barred from suing the minister’s employing church. However, the wife is not necessarily prevented from maintaining her own lawsuit against the minister and church.

A Minnesota court ruled that a pastor who engaged in a sexual relationship with a woman could not be sued directly by the woman’s husband. The husband and his wife were members of the same church and sought out their pastor for marital counseling. As a result of this counseling, the pastor entered into a sexual relationship with the wife over a period of several months. As a result of this relationship, the husband and wife were separated and later divorced. The former husband sued the pastor and his church, alleging a number of theories of liability including breach of a fiduciary duty, emotional distress, breach of a duty of reasonable care, and negligent hiring. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit against the minister on the ground that the state’s abolition of “alienation of affections” as a basis of liability prevented the husband from recovering damages from the minister. The husband appealed, and a state appeals court affirmed the trial court’s ruling. The court noted that the state legislature abolished alienation of affections in 1978. The effect of this action was to prevent persons from being legally responsible for seducing another person’s spouse. The husband alleged that he continued to suffer severe mental and emotional distress as a result of the minister’s actions, which imposed upon him the difficulties of dealing with spousal guilt, depression, unhappiness, and low self—esteem and led to poor work performance, the termination of his employment, an unprofitable career change, and related medical expenses. The court concluded that “because these losses flow from the alienation of his former wife’s affections, they generally are no longer recoverable because the legislature has outlawed [such] actions.”

The husband claimed that his losses did not arise from the sexual and emotional relationship that caused the break—up of his marriage. Instead, he argued that the minister had a “fiduciary duty” not to act against his interests that arose from the relationship of trust created by their counseling arrangement. The court ruled that even if the husband’s claim was sufficiently distinct from alienation of affections, his lawsuit still had to be dismissed because he “cannot show the adequacy of available damages to redress his injuries.” The court noted that the husband was seeking compensation for severe mental and emotional distress, resulting in the loss of his job, his acceptance of a lower—paying position outside of his career field, and increased medical expenses. But “money damages” are a “legal” remedy which, the court ruled, do not apply to a breach of a fiduciary duty which is “equitable” in nature. Equitable remedies consist of such non—monetary relief as an injunction or restitution, and neither remedy was appropriate in this case.

Application. The court’s ruling demonstrates the difficulty that spouses experience in suing a counselor or pastor for alienating a spouse’s affections through a sexual relationship. Further, this court ruled that monetary damages are not an appropriate remedy for a violation of a fiduciary duty, and this is a point that any church or minister could raise that is sued for a breach of fiduciary duties. Finally, while the court ruled that the husband could not sue the pastor, this does not mean that the pastor was free from liability. He still faced possible criminal liability, and he could have been sued by the wife on the basis of a number of theories. Also remember that the church was sued in this case, and it faces potential liability for the pastor’s acts. R.E.R. v. J.G., 552 N.W.2d 27 (Minn. App. 1996). [Seduction of Counselees and Church Members]

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