Category: church employment

TOO LONG THE WAIT

How long does a denomination or local church have to investigate sexual misconduct allegations against personnel?  Most governing documents that address the question, and most are actually altogether silent or do not differentiate such allegations from other matters of discipline, do not set a time limit on investigations or discipline.  Stated another way, must the duration of such an investigation be “reasonable?”

In Taylor v Evangelical Covenant Church, 2022 IL App (1st) 210524, Slip Op., the trial court’s decision to dismiss the case with prejudice was affirmed.  The Plaintiff was suspended by the denomination from pastoral duties in 2017 pending investigation of a sexual misconduct claim alleged to have arisen in the 1970s.  The defendant denomination licensed pastors and had the authority to suspend them.  The defendant denomination investigated during 2017 – 2018 and reinstated Plaintiff’s licensure but did not reinstall him in another local church as pastor by the time suit was filed in 2020.  In the interim the local church that previously employed Plaintiff hired a replacement.  The Plaintiff alleged the denomination violated its governing documents by “keeping Plaintiff in a suspended status for an unreasonably lengthy period.”  The appellate court determined that the substance of Plaintiff’s pled claims related to “internal matters of church governance and discipline” including the claim about undue or unjust delay.  Therefore, the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine precluded court review.

The governing documents need not set time limits on investigations, discipline, or any other matter of internal church governance.  Indeed, it is probably better that they do not.  The actual procedures the denomination used on the fifty year old sexual misconduct allegation were not set forth in the opinion.  Nor was there any report of whether the investigation found the allegations credible.  The reinstatement of the licensure of the Plaintiff seemed to indicate the allegations were not found credible.  That the Plaintiff had not be reinstalled as a church pastor may or may not indicate anything other than supply and demand given the lack of specifics in the opinion.

LEAVING THE DEFAMATION FORTRESS

Repeatedly in these reports we have seen that defamation claims are so difficult and expensive to pursue that they are only a marginal church litigation threat.  Indeed, in these reports we have characterized defamation law as a fortress that few if any claims will ever breach.  Nevertheless, for reasons political and economic, defamation claims are sometimes filed, announced to the public and then forgotten, often without being served on the opponent.

In de Laire v Voris, Order (D. NH. 2021), the United States District Court for New Hampshire was the scene of a defamation claim brought by a bishop against an internet news media company known as the Church Militant (churchmilitant.com).  The bishop apparently imposed “sanctions” on a parachurch organization during a doctrinal dispute.  The Church Militant not only reported on the sanctions dispute, but reported the bishop was the subject of complaints about the bishop’s canonical competence and other matters.  In response to the bishop’s defamation claims, the Church Militant issued a subpoena to the diocese, a non-party to the case, for documents.  The non-party diocese objected to the requests in the subpoena.  The trial court ultimately refused to enforce the subpoena because negotiations between the diocese and the Church Militant left the requests unclear to the Court.  Nevertheless, the federal trial court noted that that defamation claims in general, and therefore a related subpoena, do not automatically require inquiry into ecclesiastical matters.  Therefore, the objection of the diocese invoking the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine of the First Amendment was inapplicable and in order to reassert it the Court instructed the parties to specify its applicability to the particular documents sought.

It is hard to understand why any church leader would think that a defamation lawsuit was worthwhile when weighed against unintended consequences like court discovery.  Indeed, in the reported case, the Court assumed in its Order that the diocese and the Church Militant through counsel would negotiate further on the discovery requests made by subpoena.  While “revelations” in discovery seem unlikely, the cost of responding is not an expense to which most churches are accustomed.  Litigation also seems to be way a uniquely good way to perpetuate adverse news media coverage of an issue that might otherwise be ignored by the public in short order.

MINISTERIAL HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENTS

Many priests, pastors and ministers have felt they were trapped in a hostile workplace.  Many non-church employees that deal with the public have had the same experience.  For both the supervisory personnel to whom they answer are rarely the source.  Non-church employers may have a duty to intervene between the public and the employee if the conduct of the public is “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.”  Harris v Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 US 17, 21 (1993).  Whether the rule would apply to a minister abused by a church member remains to be decided.

In Middleton v United Church of Christ Board, Slip Op. (6th Cir. 2021) the Plaintiff was an employee of the denomination and an ordained minister.  The Plaintiff was responsible for planning youth events.  The Plaintiff alleged the work environment was rendered toxic by co-workers, supervisors and one or more church donors.  The trial court dismissed the case.  The United States Court of Appeal for the 6th Circuit affirmed.  The Plaintiff’s allegations of abuse that rendered the work environment hostile was an event in 2010, an event in 2013, an event in 2014 and retaliation because Plaintiff complained to the human relations office.  The Plaintiff was demoted in 2015 and placed under the supervision of a person of a different race.  The Plaintiff was demoted a second time later in 2015 and placed in a temporary position scheduled to end the following year.  Still later in 2015, Plaintiff’s two-month sabbatical was abruptly ended after only two weeks.  Plaintiff also claimed a promotion was denied and given to a person of a different race instead.  The Court of Appeals concluded the church could not be required to prove its employment decisions were not pre-textual.  The Court held such an inquiry would require intrusion into church ministerial employment decisions motivated by religious belief and practice.  Further, the Court of Appeals held the alleged hostile actions, however unprofessional they may have been if true, fell short of being sufficiently severe to plausibly plead a hostile work environment claim.  The denomination likewise had no duty to intervene if the alleged hostile actions did not reach the level of a hostile work environment.

The reported case set the rule for the states in the 6th Circuit that hostile work environment claims for ministers are not available.  In that ruling, the 6th Circuit joined every other circuit.  The additional holding that the allegations of the Plaintiff alone were not enough to make out a hostile work environment claim are also instructive.  Non-clergy employees may still, in some cases, be able to make a hostile work environment claim.  However, the alleged abuse must rise to the level of altering the conditions of the claimant’s employment and create an abusive working environment.  This will likely require allegations of pervasive, prolonged and seriously abusive behavior to be followed by proof of same.

LAY MEMBER IMMUNITY – SORT OF

The Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and the Ministerial Exception limit secular court intrusion into church employment decisions regarding ministers and other employees.  While it is generally the limitations on employment law protection of “other employees” about which the courts struggle, it is possible for these doctrines to limit or preclude other claims.  For example, can a pastor fired by a church or denomination sue, rather than the church or denomination, a member of their church regarding their role in the loss of employment?

In Father Jim Tracy v O’Bell, et al, Slip Op. (Pa. Supp. 2021) an intermediate appellate court affirmed summary judgment in favor of the lay members sued by the former pastor.  The former pastor alleged that alleged tortious interference with his employment contract was the goal of the defamation by the lay member defendants.  The Plaintiff alleged the defendants defamed him with the intent of causing the church to terminate his employment.  Plaintiff claimed he found a large amount of cash in a file cabinet and the lay members claimed the Plaintiff was not financially responsible with church funds.  The church terminated the Plaintiff.  But, the Plaintiff did not sue the church, but rather sued the lay members the Plaintiff claimed defamed him in their alleged plot to secure his termination.  The trial court was affirmed because the alleged defamatory claims of the lay members, and the allegedly connected firing, were intertwined with the ecclesiastical decision to terminate a clergyman.  The termination decision was made by the church and court inquiry into that decision to determine if it was, indeed, based on the defamation would entangle the court in ecclesiastical governance.

While in the reported case the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine, in order to keep the court out of ecclesiastical church governance, had the effect of immunizing lay members the assumption should not be made that it will do so frequently or reliably.  Lay members, even in congregational rather than hierarchical churches, may not be able to defame each other with impunity even if as to the employment of a pastor they might.  Likewise, churches and denominations that do not manage such internal disputes, even if litigation would be ineffectual, may find that there are other consequences and ripple effects, such as to offering plates.