DEFAMATION AND SLANDER CLAIMS BY CLERGY

This report will be the second this year in which defamation was a significant or primary claim.  In our post of February 8, 2018, entitled Internal Church Reorganization Defense, the defamation claim in a Texas case was dismissed because there was not a “scintilla of evidence” supporting it.  The defamation claim was lodged in an employment case arising from a position lost due to an internal church reorganization, pretextual or not, but was not strong enough to carry the case.

In Diocese of Palm Beach, Inc. v Gallagher, Slip Op. (FL App., 4th Dist. 2018), a clergyman sued for defamation but his damages claims were all wrongful termination damages such as front pay, back pay, lost wages, and lost wage earning capacity.  Typically, defamation damages are the dollar value of loss of reputation.  Reputation was more of  a nineteenth century damages concept although even today it can be a credible claim for damages in rare instances.  As a result, the trial court held the case was a wrongful termination claim masquerading as a defamation claim and dismissed it on Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine grounds.  The trial court may not have reached the Ministerial Exception Doctrine but probably would have if the case had continued.  The Florida Court of Appeals affirmed.  The facts of the case were interesting because the clergyman reported to secular authorities a child sexual abuse by another clergyman resulting in criminal prosecution and deportation of the offending clergyman.  But, meanwhile, parishioners complained about the ministerial performance of the Plaintiff.  The opinion leaves unanswered the question of whether the complainants were affiliated with the alleged abuser by ethnicity or national origin.  Relying on those complaints, the diocese did not promote the Plaintiff to pastor but transferred him to another church.  The Plaintiff gave an interview to the media which was reported as scathing to the diocese.  The diocese responded with its own public denunciation of the Plaintiff, including a claim the Plaintiff “needed professional help” and was unfit to serve as a clergyman.  The Plaintiff alleged the public statements of the diocese were defamatory.  The trial court held that to resolve the claims the trial court would have to explore Plaintiff’s fitness which would involve the court in a church disciplinary matter crossing into ecclesiastical matters.

The actions that made the dispute intractable for both sides were their public comments and maybe, too, that their public statements were harsh.  It is impossible to judge from this vantage point whether both or either speaker spoke irresponsibly, but both failed to count the legal cost of what was said.  The more pressing problem that was not addressed insofar as can be gleaned from this court’s opinion was the lack of an internal hearing by church officers.  Whistleblowers treated as pariah’s, even if there is no lawsuit, will remain a distraction for longer than would be the case if there was a full hearing and fact finding.  The church need not and should not conduct such an inquiry in public but rather should adopt confidentiality provisions to cloak the inquiry.  The purpose of the hearing is to make certain both whistleblower and church leadership have fully addressed all issues or frankly discussed disagreements.  Another possibility is to engage outside counsel to conduct the inquiry and to carefully interview the whistleblower and make confidential recommendations to church leadership.  Only by taking such substantive action is there hope either will trust the other.

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