Ninth Circuit enforces Japanese judgment against church under California Uniform Foreign Country Money Judgments Recognition Act.

AuthorMendoza Robledo, Adriana

Ohno v. Yasuma, 723 F.3d 984 (2013).

The California Uniform Foreign-Country Money Judgments Recognition Act (the Uniform Act) allows a California court to recognize and enforce a foreign judgment. (1) The Uniform Act provides courts with nine discretionary grounds for non-recognition of foreign judgments. (2) In Ohno v. Yasuma, (3) the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit addressed whether the enforcement of an international judgment against a church constituted state action in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the California Constitution. (4) The court also addressed whether enforcement of the judgment is repugnant to public policy and therefore not covered by the Uniform Act. (5) The court held that enforcement of an international award did not constitute state action, triggering constitutional analysis, and that enforcement of the award is not against public policy. (6)

Ohno, a citizen of Japan, became a member of the Saints of Glory Church in that country in 1994. (7) She predominately practiced at the Tokyo branch, where worshipers listened to sermons given in California by the principal pastor, Yasuma. (8) Saints of Glory members were required to contribute one-tenth of their incomes to demonstrate obedience. (9) After Ohno lost her job, Yasuma convinced her to live in a Church-affiliated residence in Tokyo with other church members. (10) During that time, Ohno discontinued use of her prescribed anti-depressants and tranquilizers because Yasuma discouraged the use of medications. (11) During this time, damage to Ohno's nervous system caused her depression and general ataxia to worsen; as a result, Ohno delved deeper into the Church and its ideology. (12)

Beginning in 2001, Yasuma encouraged Ohno to make large money transfers to both himself and another Church minister. (13) In January of 2002, Yasuma began spending several hours talking with Ohno and pressuring her to tithe more of her income. (14) Within two months of these conversations, Ohno had transferred the majority of her assets totaling JPY68,678,424 to the Church. (15) Approximately one year after these transfers, the Church ordered Ohno to leave claiming she was not obedient to Jesus Christ. (16) A few years after Ohno left the Church, she resumed taking her medications and came to the realization that the Church had taken advantage of her illness and her fear of not obeying Jesus Christ. (17)

Ohno filed a complaint in Japan in 2007 against Yasuma and two other Church members under tort and unjust enrichment claims. (18) The focus of her claims was on the donation of approximately USD500,000 to Saints of Glory Church under the stress generated by Yasuma's threatening conversations with Ohno. (19) After two years of litigation in Japan, the Tokyo District Court held that Yasuma and Saints of Glory had illegally induced Ohno to make substantial payments during a time when she was not psychologically stable. (20) The Tokyo District Court awarded Ohno USD843,235.66, which included the large transfers made to Saints of Glory in 2002 as well as damages for pain and suffering. (21) Furthermore, Ohno brought an international diversity action in the United States District Court for the Central District of California for the enforcement of the Japanese judgment against Yasuma and Saints of Glory under the Uniform Act. (22) The district court enforced the judgment against Yasuma and Saints of Glory under the Uniform Act and held that the Japanese Judgment was not repugnant to public policy or the Free Exercise Clause. (23)

Constitutional rights are protected from government intrusion, which requires the existence of a state action when assessing whether a state has deprived a citizen of a federal right. (24) In Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co., (25) the Supreme Court set out a two-prong test to determine whether judicial action satisfies the state action requirement triggering constitutional scrutiny. (26) The first prong focuses on whether the alleged constitutional deprivation resulted from "the exercise of some right or privilege created by the state or by a rule of conduct imposed by the state or by a person for whom the State is responsible." (27) The second prong asks whether the party charged with the alleged deprivation can be classified as a state actor. (28)

In limited situations, courts have recognized judgments against religious organizations as establishing state action and triggering constitutional scrutiny. (29) In Paul v. Watchtower Bible Tract Soc., (30) the Ninth Circuit held that the use of Washington tort law establishing damages against a religious organization for actions taken in furtherance of their religious beliefs constituted state action. (31) In that case, the plaintiff alleged that members of the Jehovah's Witness faith were intentionally shunning her after she decided to leave the religious organization. (32) The court found that awarding damages against the Jehovah's Witnesses for engaging in the religious practice of their faith amounts to condemning shunning and defining it as an unlawful act. (33) The court reasoned that the Washington tort law allowing the plaintiff's recovery would restrict the religious organization's freedom to practice its faith and thus constitutes state action. (34) Paul further clarified that a state's tort law constitutes state action not because of judicial involvement but rather because--as stated in the case-in-chief--the tort law relies on the power of state government to regulate conduct." (35)

The Uniform Act is derived from the revised Uniform Foreign-Country Money Judgments Recognition Act of 2005. (36) Many states have statutes similar to the Uniform Act, which include a repugnancy to public policy exception. (37) The Uniform Act allows courts to deny recognition of foreign money judgments if either "[t]he judgment or the cause of action or claim for relief on which the judgment is based is repugnant to the public policy of California or of the United States." (38) The standard for repugnance was articulated in Crockford's Club Ltd. v. Si-Ahmed, (39) where a California Court of Appeal held that the public policy exception in the Uniform Act [section] 1716 (c)(3) only applies when the judgment or the law that grants the judgment is so hostile and in opposition to California, or federal, public policy interests as to prevent the extension of comity. (40) In an analogous case, the Court of Appeals of Maryland, in Telnikoff v. Matusevitch, (41) refused to enforce an English libel judgment on the grounds of repugnance to public policy embodied by the First Amendment. (42) The court found that English defamation law was completely different from Maryland defamation law and that English defamation law is contrary to freedom of the press as embodied by Maryland's Constitution as well as the United States Constitution. (43)

In Ohno v. Yasuma, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the district court's enforcement of a Japanese judgment did not constitute state action and that the judgment was not repugnant to the Uniform Act. (44) The court first determined, using the first prong set out in Lugar, whether enforcement of the foreign judgment constituted state action. (45) The court held that the claimed constitutional deprivation could not be traced to a right, privilege or rule of conduct imposed by California or U.S. government entity. (46) The court reasoned that because Japanese tort law was the substantive law that applied to this case allowing the recovery, and because Yasuma was challenging the constitutionality of the Japanese tort judgment, not the Uniform Act, there was no link between a domestic government entity and the alleged deprivation, therefore there was no state action to be found under the first element of Lugar. (47) The court then proceeded with the second prong of the Lugar analysis: attempting to link Ohno to a state actor. (48)...

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