SUING THE RIGHT PERSON

This is sometimes harder than might be expected.  Lawyers instinctively seek to sue the deep pockets because most wrongdoers are gone, dead or insolvent.  In church cases, especially those arising from some sort of church split, the right defendant might not be the entity.  It might not be the oversight board members (regardless of their title).  It might not be the pastor or other religious leader.  Sometimes state non-profit law can guide the choice and sometimes only the church or denominational governing documents can point to the right defendant.

In Suleman v Zia, Slip Op. (NJ App 2021), the Plaintiffs and Defendants agreed to a stipulated court order that required membership applications be submitted by a date certain and that a general election of board members be held by a date certain.  147 timely submitted membership applications were submitted but no action was taken and no election was scheduled.  The Plaintiffs sought an order of the Court enforcing the stipulated order.  The trial court denied the request for an order of enforcement.  The defendants named in the court proceeding were not members of nor consisted of the Membership Committee charged with the duty to review the applications.  The Membership Committee and its members were not named as parties so no Court order could be enforced as to them.  The defendants were members of an oversight board that had no control over the Membership Committee and apparently could not bind it to any agreement or order.

While it is possible the defendants in the reported case innocently thought they had authority to agree to a stipulated court order, it is equally possible the defendants knew they did not have authority to commit the Membership Committee to anything and for tactical reasons remained silent.  In either case, the Plaintiffs and their counsel should have obtained proof of the defendants’ authority to bind the Membership Committee to the stipulated order.  Defendants should not be selected based on emotions or conspiracy theories.  Church split litigation is usually an underfunded bad idea based on the heat of the moment, in any event, but it will be futile if the proper defendant is not before the court.

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