Court denies Salt Lake FWC claims in latest step in long running church legal drama

In the latest step in a long running dispute between two Tongan churches, an American court has denied an appeal for legal fees and costs to the Salt Lake City Laumālie Mā’oni’oni Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga.

The FWC had made the claims following a case last year in which another court dismissed a claim by the Church Mutual Insurance Company in which the company sought to determine its obligations to all parties in the dispute.

Church Mutual and the  Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Methodist Church and the Board of Trustees of the Tongan United Methodist Church Conference Parties then reached a full settlement and the district court agreed to dismiss all claims between them in February this year.

The FWC Parties argued that dismissal was improper because it did not vindicate their rights or resolve the controversy that still existed.

“The FWC Parties have not, however, identified any extant disputes or controversies, nor have they explained how Church Mutual may remain obligated to them,” Judge Monroe G. McKay Circuit Judge said in his report on the case.

“The FWC Parties appear to rely on the factor pertaining to their effort and expense in preparing for trial to argue against dismissal. But they were not required to prepare for trial. Their filings were limited to an answer, responses to intervention and discovery.”

The judge said the FWC’s fundamental argument in challenging dismissal was that Church Mutual should be required to pay their attorney fees and costs incurred in the case.

However, under American rules, parties to a lawsuit ordinarily paid their own attorney fees.

“Thus, the district court did not abuse its discretion in granting dismissal without awarding the FWC Parties their attorney fees and costs.

“The FWC Parties’ request for an award of attorney fees and costs on appeal is denied. The judgment is affirmed.”

The dispute dates back to 2013 when the Tongan Wesleyan Church split after Filimone Havili Mone, the former pastor of the Tongan United Methodist Church, was charged with failing to report child abuse.

The Rocky Mountain Conference removed Mone from his post, but apparently without telling his congregation why.

This caused a majority of  church members to agree to change the name of the Tongan United Methodist Church to Salt Lake City Laumālie Mā’oni’oni Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, to elect a new board and modify its articles of incorporation.

The Conference sided with the minority members who remained with the Tongan United Methodist Church and opposed the changes.

In January 2013,  ‘Etimani Ma’afu, was elected as president of the Tongan United Methodist Church, but not for the Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Methodist Church.

The FWC filed a legal challenge alleging that Ma’afu was improperly claiming authority over the church’s assets. The Conference filed a counterclaim asserting ownership and control of the church’s charter and assets.

The Conference and the Tongan United Methodist Church then sued the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga and its principals, alleging a breach of fiduciary duty in setting up their unaffiliated congregation.

The Church Mutual Insurance Company of Wisconsin then asked a federal judge to sort out whose legal bills it was obliged to pay in the dispute.

The company said  that it had determined that under a policy issued in 2010, it would potentially have to pay limited legal fees for Ma’afu, but not for the Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Methodist Church.

The main points

  • In the latest step in a long running dispute between two Tongan churches, an American court has denied an appeal for legal fees and costs to the Salt Lake City Laumalie Mā’oni’oni Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga.
  • The FWC had made the claims following a case last year in which another court dismissed a claim by the Church Mutual Insurance Company in which the company sought to determine its obligations to all parties in the dispute.
  • Church Mutual and the Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Methodist Church and the Board of Trustees of the Tongan United Methodist Church Conference Parties then reached a full settlement and the district court agreed to dismiss all claims between them in February this year.
  • The FWC Parties argued that dismissal was improper because it did not vindicate their rights or resolve the controversy that still existed.

For more information 

Church Mutual Insurance Company v. Board of Trustees of the Tongan United Methodist Church

Dispute over the assets of a Tongan Methodist church in Utah

Utah Tongan church dispute moves to federal court (2013) 

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