REMOVAL AND THE ECCLESIASTICAL ABSTENTION DOCTRINE

Generally, federal courts can only hear cases in which the Plaintiff is from a state other than the state from which the Defendant hails or if the case involves a federal law.  Generally, assuming the parties are from the same state, a federal court will review the state court Petition or Complaint that was removed by the Defendant to federal court to determine if the Petition or Complaint raises a question under federal law.  If none is found, the case will be remanded to the state trial court from which it came.  The Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and the Ministerial Exception are federal constitutional law doctrines but typically they are raised in a case as defenses by the Defendant.  If the state trial court Petition or Complaint only mentions state law, unless there is a federal law lurking in the Petition or Complaint, the federal court will not have jurisdiction and will remand the case to state trial court.

In Savoy v Savoy, Slip Op., 2017 WL 1536158 (D. Nev. 2017), the Plaintiff demanded an accounting from the church corporation under the state law governing corporations.  The Plaintiff also alleged that the corporate officers breached their fiduciary duty of loyalty to the corporation as defined by state law.  The Defendant removed the case from state court to federal court based on the Defendants’ defensive assertion of the Ministerial Exception and the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine.  But, following normal federal policy, the case was remanded to state court because the Plaintiff and Defendant were residents of the same state and because the Plaintiff did not assert a right under federal law.  That the Defendant asserted a right under federal constitutional law was not enough.

The facts of the case are not explicated in the Court’s opinion with sufficient detail to make a guess why removal to federal court was considered by the Defendant a good idea.  But, the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and the Ministerial Exception may be raised in a state court proceeding probably to the same or similar effect.  Indeed, state courts sometimes are more reluctant to delve into church splits than federal courts.

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