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Wagner v. Our Lady of Mount Caritas, O.S.B., Inc.

Appellate Court of Connecticut

June 16, 2015

JANET WAGNER ET AL.
v.
OUR LADY OF MOUNT CARITAS, O.S.B., INC.

Argued, January 22, 2015

Page 104

Action to recover damages for, inter alia, fraudulent misrepresentation, and for other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of New Britain, where the matter was tried to a jury before Swienton, J.; verdict for the plaintiffs; thereafter, the court denied in part the defendant's motion to set aside the verdict and rendered judgment for the plaintiffs, from which the defendant appealed to this court.

SYLLABUS

The plaintiffs, W and her husband, sought to recover damages for, inter alia, fraudulent misrepresentation in connection with their agreement with the defendant religious community to fund the construction of a chapel on the defendant's property that would include a small living area in which the plaintiffs would be permitted to reside rent free for the remainder of their lives. In 1979, the then bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich issued a decree that established the defendant as a " Pious Union" and named the defendant's president, J, as the " temporary Superior" of the union. From that time, the defendant portrayed itself as a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery. The defendant's relationship with the diocese deteriorated over the years, however, resulting in the diocese informing J that the decree was canonically invalid, that the defendant should not refer to itself as a Benedictine monastery, and that J should correct any misconceptions regarding the defendant's status in relation to the diocese. J ignored the diocese's admonitions. In 2008, W, who was an oblate with another Benedictine monastery, became associated with the defendant after finding its website while searching for a Benedictine monastery that was closer to her home in which she could continue her work as an oblate. After visiting the defendant and meeting J, W's involvement with the defendant increased, culminating in the plaintiffs' agreement with the defendant to fund the construction of the chapel. During the chapel's construction, W received a letter from the bishop of the diocese informing her that the defendant was not and never was a Benedictine monastery, and that the defendant did not have the diocese's permission to build a Roman Catholic chapel. W discussed the letter with J, who explained that the statements in the letter were lies and that the letter was a continuation of the diocese's contentious relationship with the defendant and a further attempt by the diocese to suppress the defendant's activities. W initially accepted J's representations, but eventually her relationship with J deteriorated and her involvement with the defendant ended. The plaintiffs then brought this action claiming, inter alia, that they were induced into providing the funds for the construction of the chapel by the defendant's fraudulent misrepresentation that it was a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery. The matter was tried to a jury, which returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs and determined that they were entitled to punitive damages. The court thereafter denied in part the defendant's motion to set aside the verdict, and rendered judgment in favor of the plaintiffs, from which the defendant appealed to this court. Held that the defendant could not prevail on its claim that the trial court abused its discretion in denying the defendant's motion to set aside the verdict with respect to the jury's determination that the plaintiffs were entitled to punitive damages because the jury's finding that the defendant had fraudulently misrepresented to the plaintiffs that it was a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery was not supported by the evidence: there was ample evidence in the record from which the jury reasonably could have found that the defendant repeatedly and intentionally misrepresented to W that it was a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery, that the defendant intentionally misrepresented itself to the plaintiffs to induce them to fund the construction of the chapel, and that, in doing so, the defendant displayed a reckless indifference to the rights of the plaintiffs, who testified credibly that they would not have provided the funds if they had known that the defendant was not a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery; furthermore, although the defendant's version of the facts contradicted the plaintiffs' version, the jury was free to credit the testimony and evidence presented by the plaintiffs over that adduced by the defendant, as the issues relating to the credibility of witnesses and the assessment of conflicting evidence were within the province of the jury.

Edward Muska, for the appellant (defendant).

Jeremy S. Donnelly, for the appellees (plaintiffs).

Beach, Sheldon and Dupont, Js.

OPINION

Page 105

SHELDON, J.

[157 Conn.App. 790] The defendant, Our Lady of Mount Caritas, O.S.B., Inc., appeals from the judgment of the trial court denying its motion to set aside the jury verdict in favor of the plaintiffs, Janet Wagner and her husband, Jess Wagner, on their claim for punitive damages.[1] The defendant claims that the jury's verdict that the plaintiffs were entitled to punitive damages should have been set aside because the jury's determination that it had fraudulently misrepresented to the plaintiffs that it was [157 Conn.App. 791] a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery was not supported by the evidence adduced at trial. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

The jury reasonably could have found the following facts. On November 1, 1979, Bishop Daniel P. Reilly, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich (diocese), issued a " Decree of Establishment of the Community of Mount Caritas as a Pious Union." Pursuant to that decree, the union consisted of " Sister Mary Peter [also known as Dorothy Jordan],[2] professed Sister of the Benedictine Community in Stillwater, Massachusetts and one secular Oblate, Eleanor J. Tremko, by name." [3] The stated reason for the establishment of the union was to promote contemplative life and to " strength[en] . . . family life and enable individuals and families to embrace the Spirit of Christ . . . ." Sister Mary Peter was named as " temporary Superior of this Union until such time as, with God's blessings, the community may approach canonical approval for a Constitution to become a Religious Community." The decree further provided: " This decree is effective for an experimental period of two years in which time the working order of the Spirit may show forth the principle of attraction to draw others to this apostolate and way of life. At the end of this period, if there is a witness of growth to six or more members, we shall then consider canonical

Page 106

erection or more permanent union."

On October 26, 1982, Bishop Reilly issued another " Decree of Establishment of the Community of Mount Caritas as a Pious Union," which noted the identical purpose and goal of the union as set forth in the 1979 decree, and further provided: " This decree is effective [157 Conn.App. 792] until such time as the working of the Spirit may show a witness of growth to six or more ...


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