Ninth Circuit holds that money judgment of Japanese courtchallenged on grounds of freedom of religion isenforceable, that district court's recognition and enforcement of the judgment does not constitute "stateaction," and that neither the judgment nor the underlying cause of action is repugnant to U.S. or California public policy.

Ohno v. Yasuma, Saints of Glory Church, Case No. 11-55081 (9th Cir. July 2, 2013) [click for opinion]

Plaintiff Naoko Ohno, a citizen of Japan, filed suit in Japan against her pastor, Los Angeles resident Yuko Yasuma, and the Saints of Glory Church, a registered California religious corporation, alleging that Defendants "tortiously induced her to transfer nearly all of her assets to the Church."  Ohno further contended that Yasuma urged her to tithe, distance herself from her family, stop taking medications, and donate approximately $500,000 to the Church.  Ohno was awarded $843,235.66 for restitution of sums paid to Defendants, pain and suffering, and attorney's fees.  Ohno filed suit in the United States District Court for the Central District of California for recognition and enforcement of the Japanese judgment pursuant to California’s Uniform Foreign-Country Money Judgments Recognition Act, Cal. Civ. Proc. Code §§ 1713–1724 ("Uniform Act").

In opposition to Plaintiff's summary judgment motion, Defendants argued that the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution and parallel provisions of the California Constitution (U.S. Const. amend. I; Cal. Const. art. 1, § 4) protected their religious speech (including their threats of divine retribution) and prohibit courts from imposing liability for Defendants' religious teachings.  Defendants contended that district court recognition and enforcement of the Japanese judgment would be unconstitutional.  Moreover, Defendants urged that the Japanese judgment was not entitled to recognition or enforcement under the Uniform Act because it was "repugnant to the public policy" of the U.S. and California, as reflected by the Free Exercise Clauses.  Finally, Defendants argued that the Japanese judgment "was obtained through procedures not compatible with the requirements of due process of law."

The district court recognized and enforced the foreign money judgment, rejecting Defendants' arguments.  The Ninth Circuit affirmed.  The Ninth Circuit observed that no dispute among the parties existed regarding the "threshold requirements for recognition," and that the Japanese judgment indisputably: (1) granted recovery of a sum of money; (2) was final, conclusive and enforceable in Japan; and (3) was not a judgment for taxes, a fine or other penalty, or a judgment in connection with domestic relations.  Under these circumstances, the Uniform Act shifted the burden to Defendants to establish that a ground for non-recognition existed. 

Defendants urged the "repugnant to public policy" ground for non-recognition.  The Ninth Circuit noted the distinction between recognizing or enforcing a foreign-country money and rendering that judgment in the first instance and concluded that giving effect to a judgment rendered in Japan does not amount to substantive participation in any unconstitutional action such as judging the validity of a religious practice, and that, therefore, recognition and enforcement does not amount to "state action subject to constitutional scrutiny."  The Ninth Circuit also determined that recognition and enforcement of the judgment was not repugnant to public policy because a mere inconsistency between American and Japanese law did not meet the high repugnancy standard and that the Japanese judgment was not so antagonistic to tort or constitutional principles in the U.S. as to warrant non-recognition or non-enforcement.