CHURCH BOARD USURPATION PENALITIES

When a church split spills into the street and the parties decide to hire counsel and resolve it in court, there can be consequences beyond wounded feelings that do not soon abate.  It is possible that overly aggressive seizures of control, even usurpation by fraudulent means, can lead to court imposed penalties or restrictions authorized under state corporations statutes.

In Sikh Temple Turlock v Chahal, Slip Op. (Unpublished) (CA App. 5th, 2018), the church split, which involved a violent altercation at one point, resulted in competing church boards between which the trial court had to choose.  The trial court determined that the latter of the two boards “fraudulently” took authority over the church and reinstated the prior board.  In addition, the “usurpers” were barred from sitting on the church board for five years.  The court of appeals affirmed.  The appellate court viewed the five year bar as a reasonable action authorized by the state corporations statute and a good “cooling off period.”  The court also noted that the invalid election upon which the challengers were relying never happened.  However, it was deemed not valid because there was no documentation of a valid membership list as there was for the earlier election and thus no proof there had been a quorum.

Reading between the lines of the opinion, the church seemed to be suffering from antipathy of the congregation toward serving on the board.  Also, the long serving, and maybe long suffering, valid board members may have become insufficiently motivated to keep current membership lists and to require the congregation to adhere to the bylaws regarding governance.  This may have created the chaotic opening that resulted in competing boards, the latter of which tried to lock out the earlier in what the trial court viewed as a “fraudulent” usurpation.  The lessons seem obvious.

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