Several federal courts have held that the principal of a church school is sufficiently ministerial such that federal employment claims cannot be enforced. The Ministerial Exception, a subset or cousin to the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine, may not even allow enforcement of a written employment contract in some circumstances. An involuntary employment termination, a firing, cannot be reviewed by any court if the Ministerial Exception is found to be applicable. Application of the Ministerial Exception must be on a case by case basis so a church would be well served by counsel to prepare to prove its applicability even if the firing was for cause.
In Nolen v Diocese of Birmingham, Slip Op. (ND Ala ND 2017), the principal of the Catholic “grammar school” was hired on a one year written employment contract that specified firing for cause. The principal made a novice’s mistake and ignored obvious potential for conflict by hiring a new secretary that was married to a parish financial advisory board member. Meanwhile, the school enrollment was declining and as a result school finances were declining. To solve the problem, the principal marketed the school to Hispanic students and found scholarship sources for as many as possible. The principal claimed the new secretary spoke disparagingly about these students and the secretary was required to resign. Predictably, the financial advisory board became hostile to the principal. The principal was “required” to sign a letter of resignation by the priest in charge, however, because of inflated mileage travel claims, checks payable to the principal for reimbursement signed by the principal after instruction not to issue checks in that manner, and because she failed the state certification examination and did not retake the test. It was unclear whether the principal was known to be uncertified at the time of hiring. The principal claimed she was fired because she tried to prevent hostility to Hispanic students and scholarship students. The Court granted summary judgment and dismissed the case but never reached the firing for cause arguments or evidence nor the issue of resignation versus adverse employment action.
Indeed, in reality, the Court never got beyond the Diocesan School Mission Statement and the procedure manual for Catholic Schools, both made applicable by the written one year employment contract. Because this decision was at the Summary Judgment stage rather than the pleading stage, the evidentiary record was probably fully developed by discovery or at least the opportunity for discovery. Counsel wisely fought for the soul of the Court by launching all of the evidence that supported the employment action and reducing or depriving the Plaintiff of sympathy.
Numerous lessons are in this opinion. The lack of state certification may not have mattered in a private school, it would not in some states, but if it did, timely certification probably should have been an added term in the employment contract. The Court did not indicate whether any written policy prohibited someone with check signing authority to self pay. Indeed, the Court did not explain how the principal had check signing authority or whether the checks required two signatures. The church office and the priest in charge were probably nearby and check signing authority should have been limited or non-existent. Hiring the family of a board member should probably be prohibited as nepotism. Only in tiny and very small churches would it be unavoidable. In a Roman Catholic church no one typically has any actual authority except the priest in charge but that does not make nepotism a good idea.