DIVIDING BY ONE

Hierarchical churches generally cannot divide and separate constituent entities in a manner that may shield one level from the damages allegedly caused by a different level.  The hierarchical church is generally viewed as virtually or actually integrated such that a claim against one level can also be brought against another level.  Indeed, it is rare to see an assertion that there is an actual barrier between one level and another of a hierarchical church.

In Clement v The Roman Catholic Diocese of Erie, Memorandum Opinion (WD Pa. 2017), the Plaintiff alleged sexual harassment by the priest supervising her work.  The Diocese moved to dismiss the claims against the Diocese on the grounds the Diocese was not the employer and the Plaintiff was employed by the parish church.  The Plaintiff also alleged that she complained to the monsignor that supervised the priest and even with the Bishop of the Diocese but that neither did anything.  The Plaintiff claimed that there was “operational entanglement” between the Diocese and the parish.  The parish, incidentally, alleged it should be dismissed because it did not employ fifteen individuals.

The Court overruled the motions to dismiss holding that to determine whether the Diocese and parish were “sufficiently interconnected” is an “open-ended, equitable inquiry.”  The Court held this was a “fact-intensive inquiry.”  These reasons make the outcome of overruling the motions to dismiss seem inevitable.  Also, it seems like a different set of grounds for the motions to dismiss should have been presented because the hierarchical nature of the Diocese and parish relationship would seem to be too well known in that denomination to make such an alleged separation between the Diocese and parish seem realistic.

Of course, that a motion to dismiss is overruled is not uncommon and the case will proceed through discovery, dispositive motions, and possibly trial and appeal if it is not settled.  Thus, a future opinion, verdict or appeal could dispose of the case.  But, typically, the arguments raised before the Court are more usually made by connectional churches that are not hierarchical.

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