Foreign Judgments in American Courts Based on Overseas Solicitation of Religious Donations

Ohno v. Yasuma (9th Cir. July 2, 2013) offers a very detailed discussion of the matter. Here’s the introduction, the statement of facts, and the conclusion; look at the opinion itself for the reasoning:

Our case involves novel issues concerning the enforcement of foreign-country money judgments that assertedly implicate the defendant’s freedom of religion. Naoko Ohno sued Yuko Yasuma and the Saints of Glory Church (collectively, “the Church”) in Japan, alleging that they had tortiously induced her to transfer nearly all of her assets to the Church. The Japanese courts awarded Ohno a $1.2 million tort judgment.

The Church contends that the judgment imposes liability for its religious teachings, in violation of its constitutional right to free exercise of religion. The Church makes two principal arguments on appeal: (1) that the district court’s recognition and enforcement of the Japanese judgment is unconstitutional as a direct violation, by the court, of the Free Exercise Clause in the U.S. Constitution and the parallel provisions of the California Constitution, U.S. Const. amend. I; Cal. Const. art. I, § 4; and (2) that the Japanese judgment is not entitled to recognition or enforcement under California’s Uniform Foreign-Country Money Judgments Recognition Act, Cal. Civ. Proc. Code §§ 1713–1724 (“Uniform Act”), because it is “repugnant to the public policy” embodied in the Religion Clauses.

We hold, first, that the district court’s recognition and enforcement of the Japanese money judgment does not constitute “state action” triggering direct constitutional scrutiny and, second, that neither the Japanese judgment nor the cause of action on which it was based rises to the level of repugnance to thepublic policy of California or of the United States that would justify a refusal to enforce the judgment under the Uniform Act. Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s judgment in Ohno’s favor….

Ohno, a citizen of Japan, sued the Church in Tokyo District Court. She received a favorable judgment, upheld on appeal to Tokyo’s High Court. Ohno then initiated an action for recognition and enforcement of the judgment in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, as Yasuma is a resident of Los Angeles and the Saints of Glory Church (“Saints of Glory”) is a registered California religious corporation. [I assume the Japanese court had jurisdiction over Saints of Glory, since lack of such jurisdiction would be a defense to enforcement of the award in American court, yet the Ninth Circuit did not discuss the matter. -EV] …

The following facts are summarized from the findings of the Tokyo trial court, as set forth in its judgment of August 28, 2009:

Ohno joined Saints of Glory in 1994 while working in London. Three years later, Ohno began regularly participating in prayer meetings, bible study, and worship at a branch of Saints of Glory in Tokyo. Part of the Church’s program in Tokyo was playing for worshipers there tape recordings of sermons given every Sunday in California by Saints of Glory’s principal pastor, Yasuma. Ohno listened to the tapes while attending church in Tokyo. Saints of Glory preached obedience to Jesus Christ and to Yasuma. Members were required to tithe one-tenth of their incomes, which Ohno did. [Footnote: In the Japanese lawsuit, Ohno did not contest the voluntariness or seek restitution of these routine tithes. She challenged only the substantial transfers of money that she made to the Church between January and March 2002, referred to in this opinion as “the Transfers.”]

Ohno was obedient to Yasuma’s advice and teachings in various areas of her life. For example, when Ohno learned that her father was terminally ill, Yasuma “stated something negative about [Ohno] going to see her father,” so Ohno did not return home to see him before he died and did not attend his funeral. Later, after Ohno informed Yasuma that she had lost her job, the Church convinced Ohno to live with another “church memberin the same situation,” in what we infer from the record was a Church-owned or Church-affiliated residence in Tokyo. Also, after Yasuma repeatedly made negative statements about medications, Ohno ceased taking the anti-depressants and tranquilizers she had been prescribed when she was diagnosed with depression years earlier. At Yasuma’s instruction, Ohno purchased Saints of Glory videos and books, which she began watching and reading repeatedly. Finally, the Church told Ohno not to purchase her own apartment when she tried to do so, and admonished her for negotiating a reduction in her rent.

Following all these events, and while suffering from both depression and general ataxia (a lack of muscle coordination due to damage to the nervous system), Ohno “became obsessed with a sense of guilt that she had not obeyed Jesus Christ.” After Yasuma encouraged Ohno to make “givings” in late 2001, Ohno gave Yasuma and another church minister each 800,000 Yen. Then, on January 2, 2002, Yasuma “took several hours to talk to [Ohno], in a talk referred to as ‘“Warnings” [or “Reprimands”], pressuring her to tithe’” (alteration in original). After the talk, Ohno felt “overcome with terror and compelled to tithe.” Over the span of two months, Ohno closed her savings account and transferred 68,678,424 Yen to Saints of Glory, virtually all of Ohno’s assets at that time.

A year after these transfers (“the Transfers”), Ohno was told she would be “driven out” of Saints of Glory because she “had not been obedient to Jesus Christ.” The following May, the Church ordered her to leave the apartment where she was living. On the advice of her psychiatrist, Ohno then resumed taking medications for her depression. She also began participating in religious services at a different church.

Ohno eventually came to believe that she had been defrauded by the Church. She filed a complaint in 2007 in Tokyo District Court, asserting tort and unjust enrichment claims against Yasuma, Saints of Glory, and two other individual defendants not parties to the present enforcement action. The dispute centered on the circumstances in which Ohno had transferred the approximately $500,000 to Saints of Glory between January and March 2002, leaving her essentially destitute. Ohno contended that the Transfers took place as a result of the Church’s “fraudulent and threatening statements” to her while she was in a vulnerable mental and physical state. The Church argued that the contested Transfers were faith-based donations, and that Ohno sought return of the money because she no longer believed in the Church’s teachings.

The litigation in Japan lasted over two years and involved several hearings, various filings, and a full merits trial, in which Yasuma and Saints of Glory appeared through counsel. The Tokyo District Court’s judgment held Yasuma and Saints of Glory liable under Japanese Civil Code articles 709, 719, and 715, 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.” The Tokyo trial court concluded that Ohno’s decision to give the Transfers “under such psychological condition” could not be said to have been made of her own free will, and awarded damages, including restitution of the 68,678,424 Yen Ohno had given to Saints of Glory in the disputed Transfers; 3,000,000 Yen for pain and suffering; and 7,200,000 Yen for attorney’s fees. The total award was 78,878,424 Yen ($843,235.66).

As to the grounds for the judgment, article 709 of the Japanese Civil Code, entitled “Damages in Torts,” provides: “A person who has intentionally or negligently infringe[d] any right of others, or legally protected interest of others, shall be liable to compensate any damages resulting in consequence.” Minpô [Civ. C.] art. 709. Article 719 provides for joint and several liability of joint tortfeasors, Minpô [Civ. C.] art. 719, and article 715 provides for an employer’s liability for the tortious actions of its employees, Minpô [Civ. C.] art. 715. The Japanese trial court did not specify precisely which right or legally protected interest the Church infringed; it stated only that the solicitation of donations from Ohno was illegal because it exceeded “the scope of what is socially appropriate.” …

The roots of California’s Uniform Act and its presumption that foreign-country money judgments are enforceable lie in principles of international comity:

When an action is brought in a court of this country, by a citizen of a foreign country against one of our own citizens, to recover a sum of money adjudged by a court of that country to be due from the defendant to the plaintiff, and the foreign judgment appears to have been rendered by a competent court, having jurisdiction of the cause and of the parties, and upon due allegations and proofs, and opportunity to defend against them, and its proceedings are according to the course of a civilized jurisprudence, and are stated in a clear and formal record, the judgment is prima facie evidence, at least, of the truth of the matter adjudged; and it should be held conclusive upon the merits tried in the foreign court, unless some special ground is shown for impeaching the judgment, as by showing that it was affected by fraud or prejudice, or that by the principles of international law, and by the comity of our own country, it should not be given full credit and effect.

Hilton v. Guyot, 159 U.S. 113, 205-06 (1895). The Church has not demonstrated any such ground for non-recognition here.

Enforcement, by the district court, of the Japanese damages award did not render the imposition of tort liability domestic state action, subject to constitutional constraints. Thus, the district court’s order did not directly violate the Federal or California Constitution. Nor is the Japanese judgment or the underlying cause of action so antithetical to the protections afforded by the Religion Clauses as to permit — let alone require — non-recognition under California’s Uniform Act by reason of repugnancy to public policy.

Thanks to Prof. Howard Friedman (Religion Clause) for the pointer.