Friday, May 21, 2021

Defamation Action By Bishop In Russian Orthodox Church Survives Motion To Dismiss

In Belya v. Metropolitan Hilarion, (SD NY, May 19, 2021), a New York federal district court refused to dismiss a defamation complaint by a leader of the Russian Orthodox Christian Church in the United States against various other Church leaders who oppose plaintiff's election as Bishop of Miami. According to the court, defendants, in a letter to the church's Synod, made various allegations:

Principally, the letter alleges that the election of Belya never actually occurred; that the results of Belya’s election were fabricated; that the communications from Hilarion to Russia were falsified, either with Hilarion’s knowledge or without; and that the letter from Archbishop Gavriil confirming that Belya had instituted the required changes of practice was likewise falsified. The Olkhovskiy Group requested, in light these allegations and additional unspecified complaints from persons in Florida, that Belya be suspended from clerical functions until the completion of a full investigation. This letter was disseminated among the members of the New York Synod, to parishes, churches, monasteries, and other institutions within ROCOR, as well as more broadly to online media outlets. 

According to Belya, after the September 3 Letter was sent, he was denied all access to Hilarion and was suspended from performing his duties as spiritual leader of his parish....

Rejecting an ecclesiastical abstention argument, the court concluded that the lawsuit "may be resolved by appealing to neutral principles of law. Plaintiff’s claim centers on Defendants’ allegations that he forged the various letters at issue that led to the confirmation of his election as Bishop of Miami."  The court went on:

Belya does not ask this Court to determine whether his election was proper or whether he should be reinstated to his role as Bishop of Miami, and the Court would not consider such a request under the doctrine of ecclesiastical abstention....

Defendants argued that the statements at issue could not be defamatory because they were merely allegations or opinions.  The court concluded, however, that at least one of the challenged statements were assertions of fact, not just allegations.