F.G. v. MacDonell

150 N.J. 550, 696 A.2d 697 (1997)



A fiduciary relationship arises between two persons when one person is under a duty to act for or give advice for the benefit of another on matters within the scope of their relationship. The fiduciary's obligations to the dependent party include a duty of loyalty and a duty to exercise reasonable skill and care. Accordingly, the fiduciary is liable for harm resulting from a breach of the duties imposed by the existence of such a relationship.


A parishioner consulted with rector for pastoral counseling. The parishioner then confided to the assistant rector that the rector had inappropriate sexual contact with her. The assistant rector published identifying information about the relationship. The parishioner sued the rector and assistant rector for breach of fiduciary duty and clergy malpractice. The rector and assistant rector contended that they were protected by the First Amendment and the trial court dismissed the claims. 


Is the rector protected by the First Amendment?




The Court held that even though the plaintiff's claims for clergy malpractice could not be sustained because they might involve the courts in identifying religious beliefs and practices, her claims for breach of fiduciary duty could be adjudicated without impinging on the free exercise of religion. It was held that U.S. Const. amend. I did not shield defendants from breach of fiduciary actions arising out of sexual contact in a counseling relationship. The court remanded for the trial court to decide whether plaintiff could proceed with her breach of fiduciary claim against defendant assistant rector without entanglement in religious doctrine because his breaches occurred in sermons and letters to the congregation.

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