Court issues decision in CCCAS vs. Rev. Amaama case

Slander and violation of constitutional dignity claims by defendant remain, all else dismissed
ausage@samoanews.com

The Trial Division of the High Court of American Samoa has dismissed both Rev. Amaama Tofaeono's cross claims and counter claims against the Congregational Christian Church of American Samoa (CCCAS). But it has also dismissed the plaintiff's motion to dismiss Tofaeono's counter claims of slander and violation of the constitutional dignity of the individuals.

These were noted in a decision issued Monday, Oct. 2nd

The case between the CCCAS and Rev. Amaama Tofaeono, who served as CCCAS General Secretary, made headlines earlier this year because of the events that led to the case landing in court.

The plaintiffs are the CCCAS along with Rev. Elder Eveni Mamoe, Leatulagi Faalevao, and Fiti Aofia. The defendants are Rev. Tofaeono and his wife Joan Aleluia Tofaeono.

Gwen Tauiliili-Langkilde represented the plaintiffs, while Charles V. Alailima and Toetasi Tuiteleleapaga represented the Tofaeonos.

DISCUSSION

In its decision, the court noted that in March 2017, marital discord between Rev. Amaama Tofaeono and Joan Aleluia Tofaeono resulted in the CCCAS Elders’ Committee  suspending Amaama from his position as an ordained minister for a period of three years. The Committee also removed Amaama from his position as General Secretary of the Church, a position that must be held by an ordained minister.

Defendants were also informed that they must vacate the CCCAS house, designated for use by the General Secretary, by March 31, 2017. When the defendants refused to move out, plaintiffs brought the action for summary repossession of the property.

On May 30, 2017, defendants filed their answer and asserted counter-claims against plaintiffs Mamoe, Aofia and Fa’alevao in their personal capacities and as officers and elders of CCCAS, and cross-claims against Rev. Fa’aeteete Saifoloi in his personal capacity and as a counseling minister and elder of CCCAS.

On July 11, 2017 the plaintiffs filed the instant motion to dismiss the counter and cross-claims for lack of jurisdiction.

MOTION TO DISMISS CROSS-CLAIMS AGAINST REV. SAIFOLOI

According to the court, the plaintiffs assert that the cross-claims against Saifoloi should be dismissed because Saifoloi was not properly joined as a party to this lawsuit and the court agreed.

Consequently, the defendants’ cross-claims are dismissed.

MOTION TO DISMISS COUNTER-CLAIMS FOR TORTIOUS REMOVAL OF ORDINATIONS

According to the decision, "The Revised Constitution of American Samoa prohibits the enactment of any law that provides for the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. This protection mirrors the Religious Clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S Constitution. Our courts have not previously had the opportunity to consider this constitutional protection in the context of employment of ministers by a church. The court therefore looked to the federal courts for guide on this issue.

"In lawsuits concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers, the court must determine whether the Religious Clauses of the First Amendment bar such an action. When a claim involves an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself, the state must not interfere.

"Therefore, it is impermissible for the government to contradict a church’s determination of who can act as its ministers. This is known as the ministerial exception."

The judges agree that ministerial exception applies to the defendants’ counter-claim of tortious removal of ordination because it is being brought by a minister and concerns the internal decision of a church’s selection and control of its ministers.

Amaama argued that his suspension as an ordained minister and his removal from the General Secretary position by the Elders’ Committee was improper because the authority over ordinations and the General Secretary position lies with the CCCAS General Assembly, not with the Elders’ Committee.

Amaama requested the Court to inquire about how church authority is structured based on its organizing documents.

The Court concluded that "the exception operates as an affirmative defense to an otherwise cognizable claim, not a jurisdictional bar, because the issue presented by the exception is whether the allegation the plaintiff makes entitle him to relief, not whether the court has power to hear the case. For that reason, defendants’ counter-claim for tortious removal of ordinations is dismissed."

According to the decision, Amaama was an at-will employee whom CCCAS could terminate at any time.

Amaama claims the plaintiffs intentionally presented false and/or confidential information to the Elders' Committee as a pretext to create a post election disqualification of him as General Secretary, based on his suspension as an ordained minister.

The Court believes the defendants did not show facts to support a plausible claim and even if they had, Mamoe, Aofia, and Fa’alevao are agents of CCCAS and therefore cannot be considered third-party actors separate from CCCAS. Consequently, defendants’ counter-claim for tortious interference with employment contract is dismissed.

SLANDER CLAIMS BY DEFENDANT NOT DISMISSED

For the issue of slander, Amaama claims the plaintiffs publicly made and/or repeated false allegations of infidelity and/or family abuse against him in order to justify his removal as an ordained minister and consequential removal as General Secretary.

The Court said Amaama's assertions meet the pleading standard for slander and that's why the plaintiffs' motion to dismiss the counter claim for slander is denied.

Amaama alleges the plaintiffs made factual statements, not opinions, and such statements directly injured him professionally.

The court notes that the dignity of the individual shall be respected and every person is entitled to protection of the law against malicious and unjustifiable public attacks on the name, reputation, or honor of himself or of his family.

Amaama claimed that the same slanderous statements made by the plaintiffs — that he was unfaithful and/or abusive to his family — also violate the dignity of the individual clause of the Constitution.

The Court agreed and for that reason, they denied the plaintiffs' motion to dismiss the defendants' counter-claim.

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