CHARLESTON – The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has remanded a sexual abuse lawsuit back to state court.
Nine minors and their parents brought suit against the Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Corporation of The Presiding Bishop of the Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints, Steven Grow, Don Fishel, Christopher Michael Jensen, Christopher Jensen, Sandralee Jensen and Unnamed Defendant-1 alleging negligence claims, fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault, battery and civil conspiracy related to, arise from and resulting in Jensen’s known and alleged sexual abuse of the minor plaintiffs, according to a June 14 opinion.
Following extensive discovery, the circuit court entered an order on Dec. 4, 2015, through which it granted summary judgment in favor of Unidentified Defendant-1, against whom conspiracy was the only claim asserted.
Chief Justice Allen Loughry II authored the majority opinion.
On Dec. 30, 2015, the circuit court entered an order granting several of the defendants’ motions in limine which eliminated a large portion of the plaintiffs’ circumstantial evidence in support of their conspiracy claim. On Dec. 31, 2015, the court entered an order granting summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ conspiracy claim in favor of the defendants.
On Jan. 11, 2016, the circuit court entered an order certifying its interlocutory summary judgment rulings as final judgments pursuant to West Virginia Rule 54(b).
Upon our careful review of the parties’ briefs, the arguments of counsel, the appendix record submitted, and the applicable law, we reverse the summary judgments and in limine rulings and remand this action for further proceedings consistent with this opinion,” Loughry wrote.
In late 2004, Chris and Sandralee Jensen and their children were residing in Provo, Utah. Their son, Michael Jensen, who was then 13 years old, was arrested in middle school and charged with two felony counts of sexual abuse of a child. The two female victims were 12 and 13 years old.
On both occasions, Michael Jensen waited for his victim to exit a classroom before pinning her against a wall and grabbing her buttocks and breasts without her consent. One of the victims indicated in her statement that, during the attack, Michael Jensen told her that they needed to have sex and that she was “really scared” and she kneed him in the groin to get away.
The defendants minimized the severity of the incidents and, instead, described them as “brief groping of two female classmates over their clothes while at school.”
Jane Doe-1, individually and as parent, guardian and next friend of minors J.T. and W.T.; John Doe-1; Jane Doe-2, individually and as parent, guardian, and next friend of minors Z.W. and A.W.; Jane Doe-3, individually and as parent, guardian, and next friend of C.H., a minor; John Doe-3; Jane Doe-4, individually and as parent, guardian, and next Friend of A.B., a minor; Jane Doe-5, individually and as parent, guardian, and next friend of minors T.S. and M.S.; John Doe-5; Jane Doe-6, individually and as parent, guardian, and next friend of P.C., a minor; and John Doe-6, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, allege that a conspiracy began in Utah when the church influenced Michael Jensen’s criminal proceeding, which resulted in the two felony charges being reduced to misdemeanor sexual offenses.
Michael Jensen’s grandfather, Blaine P. Jensen, who had held very high positions within the church, attended a meeting between Michael Jensen and his attorneys and was present for his dispositional hearing in January 2015.
Other church officials also attended the dispositional hearing.
The plaintiffs claim that although the church knew that Michael Jensen had pled guilty to two sex offenses in Utah, it did nothing to warn or protect, despite the existence of an abuse “prevention and response” procedure.
In 2005, the Jensen family moved to Martinsburg and Sandralee Jensen was asked to serve as the church’s Relief Society President for her new ward, which she accepted.
By April 2007, through her role as Relief Society President, Sandralee Jensen was arranging for Michael Jensen to babysit children of ward families and there was no disclosure concerning Michael Jensen’s prior sex offenses in Utah by the Jensens or the church defendants.
The plaintiffs alleged their children were abused by Michael Jensen. Criminal charges were brought against him in 2012 and he was tried, convicted and sentenced to 35 to 75 years in the penitentiary and has been designated a “violent sexual predator.”
On Sept. 16, 2013, the plaintiffs filed their complaint in circuit court against the defendants.
“Having found the circuit court erred in excluding the plaintiffs’ circumstantial evidence in support of their conspiracy claim, and upon our consideration of that evidence, as well as all other evidence relied upon, we find there are genuine issues of material fact for trial,” the opinion states. “Drawing all permissible inferences from the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs and leaving all factual disputes and credibility determinations to the jury, we conclude that the circuit court erred. Accordingly, we reverse the circuit court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of the Church defendants and the Jensen parents on the plaintiffs’ conspiracy claim.”
The Supreme Court reversed the circuit court’s Dec. 4, 2015, order granting summary judgment in favor of UD-1 and dismissing the plaintiffs’ request for an award of punitive damages against him. It also reversed the particular in limine rulings in the circuit court’s Dec. 30, 2015, order and the circuit court’s Dec. 31, 2015, order granting summary judgment in favor of the church defendants and Chris and Sandralee Jensen on the plaintiffs’ conspiracy claim.
The suit was remanded for further proceedings consistent with the Supreme Court’s opinion.
The petitioners are represented by Robert P. Fitzsimmons of Fitzsimmons Law Firm; and Carl S. Kravitz of Zuckerman Spaeder.
The respondents are represented by Thomas V. Flaherty of Flaherty Sensabaugh Bonasso; Mark A. Atkinson and John J. Polak of Atkinson & Polak; Thomas J. Hurney Jr. and William J. Powell of Jackson Kelly.
W.Va. Supreme Court case number: 16-0008