STAPLER RULES IN CHURCH LITIGATION

While typically Courts will not honor form over substance, sometimes they do and church lawsuits are not immune from the refusal to view the entire record before the Court on procedural grounds.

In Jane Doe v Coe and First Congregational Church of Dundee, 2017 IL. App. 2d 160875, even though it seemed from the Court’s opinion the Constitution and Bylaws of the denominational entity were in the record, the fact they were not stapled to affidavits relying upon them violated a Court rule requiring it resulting in appellate reversal of the dismissal of the case.  While such a holding would make sense if the identification of the Constitution and Bylaws were uncertain as a result, the Court’s opinion expressed no such reservation.  The issue in the case was whether any of the denominational defendants had the authority to hire or fire a youth pastor at the local church.  The Constitution and Bylaws allegedly either did not authorize that level of denominational control or prohibited it as noted in the affidavits.  Thus, a wrongful hiring or failure to fire claim would not rise above the local church absent authority or actual control.  While some denominations are vertically integrated and hierarchical in employment issues, not all are.  The autonomy of the local church as to employment issues could limit such a claim to the local church.

Stapler rules, requiring a document elsewhere in the court record to be attached to a particular pleading or other document to be considered, seem anachronistic.  Such a rule would only make sense in those remaining states that lag behind in computerization of court records.  Unless identification of the document is reasonably in doubt, if it can be considered at all and is not considered only because it is not stapled to the document considered, seems a huge waste of time and litigation cost both for the litigants and the courts.  Even in a state like Oklahoma that has generally good computer access to civil case records but where the underfunding of the courts results in judges in the trial courts not having staff attorney assistance such a rule would probably not be enforced absent extra-ordinary circumstances.  Nevertheless, church lawyers ever mindful of the resource limitations of their offering funded clients still must anticipate such things and prepare document meticulously.

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