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Kim v. The True Church Members of the Holy Hill Community Church

California Court of Appeals, Second District, Fifth Division

May 21, 2015

JUN KI KIM et al., Cross-complainants and Respondents.
v.
THE TRUE CHURCH MEMBERS OF THE HOLY HILL COMMUNITY CHURCH et al., Cross-defendants and Appellants.

APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. BC459793 William F. Fahey, Judge.

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COUNSEL

Parker Mills, Gina A. Leago and David D. Yang, for Cross-defendants and Appellants.

Lee Law Offices and W. Dan Lee, for Cross-complainants and Respondents.

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OPINION

KRIEGLER, J.

Cross-defendants and appellants[1] appeal from a judgment after a court trial in favor of cross-complainants and respondents.[2] All claims but respondents’ claim for declaratory relief were dismissed before trial, and the court found in favor of respondents on that cause of action. In their timely appeal, appellants contend the trial court made three errors that warrant reversal. First, the court erroneously found in favor of respondents based on appellants’ excommunication from the Holy Hill Community Church (Church) by the Western California Presbytery (WCP). Second, the court erroneously admitted evidence of events occurring after the cross-complaint was filed. Third, the court erred when it prevented appellants’ counsel from cross-examining a representative of the WCP whose testimony was sought by respondents. Finding no prejudicial error, we affirm the judgment.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

A. Overview

In early 2011, competing factions emerged within the Church, with one group (the Bang faction, consisting of respondents and others) initially in control. The WCP intervened, excommunicating the Bang faction and placing the second group (the Cho/Shin faction, consisting of appellants and others) in control of Church operations. In April 2011, the WCP and appellants initiated the litigation which is the subject of this appeal, and respondents filed a cross-complaint.

In the spring of 2013, a separate dispute arose between appellants and the WCP, while around the same time, respondents repented for their past actions and sought reinstatement into the Church. On May 11, 2013, the WCP excommunicated appellants and reinstated respondents.

In October 2013, the court held a bench trial and granted respondents declaratory relief. Appellants appealed.

B. The Church and the Presbytery

The Church is a nonprofit religious organization. It owns valuable real property located near downtown Los Angeles, on Sunset Boulevard (Property). The Church’s governing documents are its articles of incorporation and bylaws.

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The Church’s governing body is called the “session, ” comprised of the pastor, acting as moderator, and Church elders.

In 2007, the Church joined the WCP, which in turn is one of several presbyteries within the Korean American Presbytery Church (KAPC). The WCP and its member churches are governed, in ascending hierarchical order, by the WCP bylaws and the KAPC’s book of church order (BOCO). It is undisputed that until April 20, 2013, the Church was a member of the WCP and therefore was subject to the WCP bylaws and BOCO.

C. 2011 Schism

In late 2010 and early 2011, Reverend Dong Sub Bang, who had been Church pastor since 2003, excommunicated the Cho/Shin faction, consisting of 42 members of the Church, including appellants. The following events then occurred in quick succession: the Cho/Shin faction petitioned the WCP for reinstatement; the Bang faction purported to withdraw the Church from the WCP; and the WCP determined the Bang faction’s purported withdrawal was ineffective and removed Bang as pastor of the Church. The WCP also removed respondents from their positions as Church elders and reinstated appellants and the other excommunicated members of the Cho/Sin faction.

On April 1, 2011, Bang again attempted to withdraw from the WCP. He also engaged in discussions with another congregation, LA Sarang, about a possible merger. Shortly thereafter, the Bang faction and LA Sarang took physical control of the Property and were holding worship services there. On April 17, 2011, the Cho/Shin faction took back control of the Property.

D. Ongoing Dispute over Control of Church Property

Appellants and other members of the Cho/Shin faction, with the WCP as a co-plaintiff, filed a complaint on April 18, 2011, seeking declaratory relief, an injunction, and an audit and accounting from Bang and respondents. Bang and respondents filed a cross-complaint on April 22, 2011, claiming trespass and intentional interference with prospective economic advantage, and seeking declaratory relief against appellants and the WCP as cross-defendants. As concisely described by the trial court in its final statement of decision, “Throughout the rest of 2011 the struggle for control over the [Property] continued. The litigation in this case was heavy and several interim court orders were entered.... In addition and without authority, Rev. Bang entered into financial arrangements with LA Sarang and other entities which had the effect of encumbering the [Property] and led to other lawsuits which were filed in 2012....”

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In August 2011 and January 2012, the court denied preliminary injunctions sought by Bang and respondents seeking possession and control over the Property. The orders were upheld on appeal in November 2012.

E. Uncertainty over Church Leadership

While litigation continued, the WCP appointed Albert Shin as the Church’s interim moderator in September 2011.[3] Shin testified at trial[4] that the WCP had authority to appoint an interim moderator, and that the Church would need the WCP’s approval for him to be the Church’s senior pastor.[5] The Church did not seek the WCP’s approval to make Shin a senior pastor until early in 2013. Instead of approving the Church’s request, the WCP decided to remove Shin as an interim moderator and send Reverend Jong Chun Suh to act as the Church’s interim moderator.

F. 2013 Schism

After giving notice on April 13, 2013, appellants purported to conduct a congregational vote to secede from the WCP on April 21, 2013. The WCP, in turn, held a meeting on May 11, 2013, at which it: (1) concluded the Church’s April 21, 2013 congregational meeting was illegal; (2) dismissed Shin from the WCP for his role in the April 21, 2013 meeting; (3) excommunicated appellants and several others from the Church; and (4) ...


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