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

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Tribune file photo Members of the Tongan United Methodist Church in West Valley City protest the temporary removal of their pastor, Rev. Havili Mone, outside the church Sept. 23, 2012. Mone's permanent removal without explanation two months later, led to a schism and the formation of another church.

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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  1. ‘I he lākanga fakamuimui taha kuo a’u ki ai e fakakikihi ‘a ha ongo siasi Tonga ‘e ua, kuo ‘ikai ai tali ‘e ha fakamaau’anga ‘Amelika e tangi ‘a e siasi Uēsiliana Tau’atāina Tonga ‘oku ui ko e Laumālie Mā’oni’oni ‘i Sōleiki, ‘Amelika ke totongi e fakamole ki he’enau ngaahi me’a fakalao.

    Ko e ‘eke foki ‘eni ‘a e SUTT hili ia ha keisi ‘i he ta’u kuo ‘osi ‘a ia ne fakata’e’aonga’i ai ‘e ha fakamaau’anga ‘e taha e kole e ‘eke ‘a ha ongo siasi ke totongi ‘ena ngaahi fakamole mei he kautaha malu’i Church Mutual Insurance Company.

    Ne kole leva ai e kautaha malu’i ni ki he fakamaau’anga ke ne tu’utu’uni ko e hā ‘a e me’a ke ne fai ki he ongo siasi ‘i he fakakikihi ni.

    Na’e felotoi ‘a e Church Mutual mo e konifelenisi ‘a e Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Methodist Church mo e poate talasiti ‘a e Tongan United Methodist Church Conference Parties ke aofangatuku pea tui ki ai ‘a e fakamaau’anga fakavahe ke fakata’e’aonga’i ‘enau ngaahi ‘eke kotoa fekau’aki mo ‘enau ngaahi totongi fakalao ‘i Fepueli ‘o e ta’u ni.

    Ne kikihi leva ‘a e SUTT ia ko e fakata’e’aonga’i ‘i he fakamaau’anga ko ‘eni na’e ‘ikai tonu ko’euhi na’e ‘ikai lava ‘e he fakata’e’aonga ko ia fakamahino ‘enau totonu pe ke ne solova ‘a e fekihiaki ko ia ne lolotonga hoko.

    “Neongo ia na’e ‘ikai fokotu’u mai ‘e he fa’ahi ‘a e SUTT ha ngaahi fekihiaki ne kei hoko, pea ‘ikai ke nau fakamatala’i e founga ‘o e pehe ne kei ‘i ai pe ‘a e fatongia ‘o e Church Mutual kia kinautolu”, ko e lau ia ‘a Fakamaau Monroe G. McKay Circuit Judge ‘i ha’ane lipooti ‘i he keisi ko ‘eni.

    “Ngali na’e fakafalala ‘a e SUTT ‘i he ‘uhinga fekau’aki mo ‘enau feinga ne fai mo e fakamole ‘i hono teuteu ‘o e hopo ke kikihi’i ‘a e fakata’e’aonga ne fai ‘e he fakamaau’anga. Ka na’e ‘ikai fiema’u ia ke nau teuteu ki he hopo. Ko ‘enau ngaahi me’a fakapepa ne faile ne taumu’a pe ke ‘oatu ha tali, pe ngaahi tali fakamahino ki ha fakakau atu pe ha me’a kuo ‘ilo.”

    Na’e pehē ‘e he fakamaau ko e tefito’i kikihi ‘a e SUTT ‘i hono fakafepaki’i ‘a e fakata’e’aonga ne pehē na’e totonu ke totongi ‘e he Church Mutual e fī ‘enau ‘āteni mo e ngaahi totongi ne nau fua ‘i he hopo ni.

    Neongo ia, ‘i he ngaahi lao ‘a ‘Amelika, na’e angamaheni ke totongi pe ‘e he ngaahi fa’ahi e ngaahi fī ‘enau ‘āteni.

    “Ko hono ola leva, na’e ‘ikai ngāue hala’aki ‘e he fakamaau’anga fakavahe ‘a ‘ene fa’iteliha ke fakata’e’aonga e ‘eke ta’ekau ai ‘a hono tu’utu’uni ke fua e fī mo e totongi ‘āteni ‘a e SUTT mo ene ngaahi fa’ahi.”

    Na’e tu’utu’uni ai e fakamaau’anga kuo ‘ikai ke ne tali ‘a e ‘eke ‘a e SUTT mo ‘ene ngaahi fa’ahi pea ko e tu’utu’uni ko ia kuo sila’i tāpuni.

    Ko e kikihi ko ‘eni ne hoko ia he ngaahi ‘aho ‘i he 2013 ‘i he taimi ne mavaeua ai ‘a e SUTT hili hono faka’ilo ‘o e Faifekau ki mu’a ‘a e Tongan United Methodist Church, Filimone Havili Mone ko e ‘ikai ke ne līpooti hano pā’osi’i ‘o ha tamaiki.

    Na’e hanga leva ‘e he Konifelenisi Rocky Mountain ‘o to’o ‘a Mone mei hono lakanga, kae ngali ne ‘ikai ke nau fakahā ki hono siasi ‘a e ‘uhinga.

    Na’e tupu mei heni e loto ‘a e tokolahi taha ‘o e kau mēmipa ‘o e siasi ni ke liliu ‘a e hingoa ‘o e siasi mei he Tongan United Methodist Church ki he hingoa ko e Salt Lake City Laumālie Mā’oni’oni Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, pea ke fili ha’anau poate fo’ou mo liliu e ngaahi ‘ātikolo ‘i he kautaha.

    Na’e kau ‘a e Konifelenisi ia mo ha tokosi’i mēmipa ne nau kei nofo atu pe ‘i he malumalu ‘o e Tongan United Methodist Church ‘o nau fakafepaki’i ‘e kinautolu ‘a e liliu.

    ‘I Sānuali 2013, na’e fili ai ‘a ‘Etimani Ma’afu ko e palesitteni ‘o e Tongan United Methodist Church, kae ‘ikai ki he siasi Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Methodist.

    Na’e hanga leva ‘e he SUTT ‘o ‘eke’i fakalao ‘a hono fili ‘o Ma’afu mo pehē na’e ‘ikai tonu ‘ene pule ki he koloa ‘a e siasi. Na’e faile leva ‘e he Konifelenisi ha’anau fakafepaki’i e ‘eke ko ‘eni mo taukave’i ‘enau totonu ki he koloa mo hono pule’i e tu’utu’uni mo e koloa ‘a e siasi.

    Na’e hanga leva ‘e he Konifelenisi mo e siasi Tongan United Methodist ‘o faka’ilo ‘a e SUTT mo hono kau pule, ‘o pehē tokua ne nau maumau’i ‘a honau ngafa ke falala’anga ‘i hono fokotu’u ‘a ‘enau kāinga lotu ‘o ‘ikai piki ki ha toe sino ‘e taha.

    Ne kole leva ai ‘e he kautaha malu’i ko eni Church Mutual Insurance Company ‘o Wisconsin ki he fakamaau’anga fetalolo ke fai ange ha tu’utu’uni ‘o fakamahino pe ko e totongi mo e fī fakalao ‘ahai te ne totongi ‘i he fakakikihi ko ‘eni ‘a e ongo tafa’aki.

    Na’e pehē ‘e he kautaha kuo ne loto, fakatatau ki ha polisī ne fokotu’u ‘i he 2010, ‘e lava ke ne totongi ‘e ia ha konga e fī fakalao ‘a Ma’afu kae ‘ikai ko e konifelenisi Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Methodist Church.