Some courts, it is true, will put a Plaintiff’s Petition or Complaint under a microscope and search for a phrase that might constitute a claim that can be adjudicated in a civil court.  Artful pleading, accidental or creative, should not be the standard for stating a cause of action, i.e., pleading a claim that can stay in court.  The “substance and effect of plaintiff’s claims” should be the standard.

In Speller v Saint Stephen Lutheran, Slip Op. (Mich. App. 2017) (Per Curiam) (unpublished), the appellate court tracked through each theory of recovery alleged by Plaintiff, apparently as had the trial court, to affirm the trial court’s summary judgment dismissing the Plaintiff’s case.  The Plaintiff alleged that through “wrongful conduct” the defendants were ousting him as pastor of St. Stephen’s and impairing or revoking his credentials in the denomination.  The Plaintiff alleged that the church:

→violated its own constitution and bylaws;

→the constitution and bylaws constituted an employment contract with the pastor that the church directors violated;

→no notice to church members of consideration of termination of the pastor;

→acted without a vote of the membership;

→church directors breached their “fiduciary duty;”

→defamation in internal church letters (which included allegations of “dependence on prescription pain killers” and a lack of candor about it);

→fraud and misrepresentation;

→false light invasion of privacy;

→defamation in letters sent to third parties such as the denomination; and

→intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The Michigan court swept all of these theories of recovery aside because to adjudicate these claims would require “matters of ecclesiastical polity.”

The harder cases are those that do not involve pastors or involve only parachurch organizations.  Also, many courts will not “work through” a multiplicity of theories of recovery, due to tedium, resource limitations, or rules precluding it.  Nevertheless, a court that takes a “substance and effect of plaintiff’s claims” approach seems more likely to recognize the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine’s limitation on the court’s jurisdiction early enough in proceedings to save the defendant, and maybe all parties, substantial legal fees.

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