Thursday, September 23, 2010

Bishop Eddie Long: Potentially Shameful But Was It Illegal?

OK.  I just got done reading the first complaint among several filed against Bishop Long (read it here).  When I first heard about this story I, like many people, automatically assumed that the sexual allegations at issue here were being made by young boys under the age of consent but, after reading the Maurice Robinson complaint, the alleged sexual contact happened when Robinson was 19 which is three years over the legal age limit in the state of Georgia.  This led me to wonder what exactly the legal cause of action could possibly be between two male adults since homosexuality, although objectionable to some, is not illegal.   Now before anybody jumps on me about the obvious moral repugnance implicit in a sexual relationship between a grown-ass man and a teenager, just let me state upfront that I'm with you on that point.  IF (and you must always use "if" in lawsuits prior to judgment) these allegations turn out to be true, then Bishop Long deserves to be plastered on Keith Olbermann's "Worst Person in the World" segment for a year straight, lose his Church, his wife, the dog, and any other negative social stigma that we associate with somebody who is found guilty of immoral behavior in our society.  However, my focus here is not whether these legal allegations go to Bishop Long's moral charcter.  I don't know the Bishop - for all I know he could be a man of the utmost moral integrity.  My focus is instead on whether these allegations, if true, even amount to a valid legal claim in the first place.

Again, I return to my initial question: is there a valid legal claim here?  Well before I get into the nuts and bolts of the substantive law in Georgia, one thing that jumps out at me about this case is that even though there are rumors of Bishop Long's involvement with boys UNDER the age of 16, there have been no CRIMINAL charges filed against the Bishop.  As a litigator that always makes my eyebrow raise in cases like these because the natural and correct legal reaction for parents or the victims of sexual assault is not to file a civil suit for $ but instead put the bastard away behind bars with a criminal suit.  I always found it a bit curious that the parents of the children who went after Michael Jackson dropped the criminal component of the case but vigorously pursued the civil component.  But anyway, I digress.

The Maurice Robinson complaint (and the Anthony Flagg complaint) both effectively allege the same thing - that at some point in their lives as young men over the age of consent (16), Bishop Long used his power of coercion as the pastor of a megachurch to have sex with them.  If true, that might make Pastor Long a homosexual and it might even make him a rat bastard for using the Church for sex, but it doesn't exactly make him legally liable for something or guilty of a crime.  Millions of frat boys coerce unsuspecting freshmen girls into having consensual sex with them at colleges all over this country every year but that doesn't mean they're legally liable for some cause of action - it just makes them douchebags.

The complaint also goes on to allege that, because of the sexual relationships, Pastor Long breached his fiduciary duty as a Pastor.  Now this argument might actually have some weight behind it. (BTW, a "fiduciary duty" is simply a situation where one person is ethically or legally obligated to act in the best interest of another person).  Under Georgia law, a Pastor of a church actually has a fiduciary duty to respect the trust of those who confide in him the same way a doctor would have to respect her patients or an attorney would have to respect his clients.   If the Pastor breaks that trust, and the breaking of that trust leads to damages, the Pastor COULD be liable in a civil action.   But the catch is - there have to be damages.  You can't have a civil lawsuit without some kind of damages, whether they be financial damages, property damages, or personal injury damages.  So the question is, in this case, what are the damages?

According to the complaint, the damage experienced by the plaintiff was "severe emotional distress."  Emotional distress is a hard thing to prove legally.  Because it is intangible and literally anybody could claim it at any time without much proof, the laws of most states are usually tilted heavily against granting emotional distress claims for policy reasons.  In Georgia, "the burden which the plaintiff must meet in order to prevail in [an emotional distress] action is a stringent one."  Bridges v. Winn-Dixie Atlanta, Inc., 176 Ga. App. 227 (App. Ct. 1985).  In order for a plaintiff to make out a claim for Emotional Distress: (1) The conduct must be intentional or reckless; (2) The conduct must be extreme and outrageous; (3) There must be a causal connection between the wrongful conduct and the emotional distress; (4) The emotional distress must be severe.  Phillips v. Pacific & Southern Co., 215 Ga. App. 513 (App. Ct. 1994).  If the young men in this case can't show these 4 elements, then there is no legal claim against Bishop Long because there would be no damages suffered.

As far as the complaint's claim against the Newbirth Missionary Baptist Church itself is concerned, "it is well settled under Georgia law that an employer is not responsible for the sexual misconduct of an employee."  Alpharetta First United Methodist Church v. Stewart, 221 Ga. App. 748 (App. Ct. 1996).  So even if Long is found liable, there's not much of a case against the Church itself unless the Church was aware of what was going on and didn't step in (which is what the complaint alleges BTW).

What are your thoughts on the Complaint?
In your opinon, is there a case here legally?
Legality aside, do you find the sexual allegations credible?
Why do mere sexual allegations (as opposed to an actual conviction) tend to make the American public think that somebody is guilty until proven innocent?*  (hat tip to Seth Shelton & ShadyGrady for this question)
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