United States courts will not entangle themselves in the ecclesiastical affairs of a church or denomination. Some churches and denominations include in their governing documents ethics codes. Sometimes the codes are specific and other times they are simply referenced. Sometimes when the codes are specific, certain behaviors are included within the scope of the ethics code that might be included in non-church contexts.
In Dermody v Presbyterian Church (USA), 2017 WL 3495911 (Ky. App. 2017), the Plaintiff claimed he was defamed by the church’s classification of his behavior as an ethics violation and the transmission of that information to various other sectors in the church. The court dismissed the case and it was affirmed by the appellate court. The behavior classified as “unethical” was failure to detect that subordinates had incorporated and transferred some funds to the entity without obtaining advance approval of the incorporation from the denominational governing body. Involuntary termination resulted.
The Concurring Opinion suggested the failure to know the subordinates had improperly incorporated the entity was poor management but not “unethical” as the term “unethical” would be generally understood. However, the denominational control document expressly defined improper incorporation as an ethics violation. As a result, all of the judges ruled that pursuant to the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and Ministerial Exception the denomination could set the scope of its ethics code in any manner and impose it on their employees. The courts would not interfere. The defamation claim was dismissed.
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.
It is rare that a church dispute is compelled to arbitration. Rarely is there a contract, local church control document or denominational control document that would require arbitration. Even though there are private para-church organizations that offer the services of arbitrators, most church entities have never embraced them for anything other than disputes between members.
In Patterson v Shelton, 2017 WL 3446885 (ED Penn. 2017), twenty-two years of litigation over control over the denomination and its assets had progressed through arbitration, state trial courts, federal trial courts, and appellate courts. The opinion does not explain the reason arbitration was compelled by the state trial court in 2006. But, the arbitration award in favor of the Plaintiff was vacated by the state appellate court. Efforts to enforce the arbitration award in federal court did not commence for six years for an unknown reason. The federal court dismissed the arbitration award enforcement action and the dismissal was affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit. The opinion summarized herein was the second case filed in federal court to enforce the arbitration award and again the case was dismissed.
The dismissal was based on a lack of subject matter jurisdiction because there was no federal question jurisdiction and there was not complete diversity of state citizenship between the plaintiffs and the defendants; the arbitration award had been vacated and in the eyes of the law no longer existed to enforce; further review of or enforcement of the arbitration award would require entanglement of the Court in ecclesiastical governance.
It was somewhat surprising the Court even reached the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine given the absence of federal question or diversity jurisdiction. The Court did not fully explore prohibition of enforcement of an arbitration award, a creature of contract, by the Doctrine but did explain it enough to indicate that practitioners considering mandatory arbitration clauses would do well to be skeptical of their utility in ministerial employment and church governance matters.
While typically Courts will not honor form over substance, sometimes they do and church lawsuits are not immune from the refusal to view the entire record before the Court on procedural grounds.
In Jane Doe v Coe and First Congregational Church of Dundee, 2017 IL. App. 2d 160875, even though it seemed from the Court’s opinion the Constitution and Bylaws of the denominational entity were in the record, the fact they were not stapled to affidavits relying upon them violated a Court rule requiring it resulting in appellate reversal of the dismissal of the case. While such a holding would make sense if the identification of the Constitution and Bylaws were uncertain as a result, the Court’s opinion expressed no such reservation. The issue in the case was whether any of the denominational defendants had the authority to hire or fire a youth pastor at the local church. The Constitution and Bylaws allegedly either did not authorize that level of denominational control or prohibited it as noted in the affidavits. Thus, a wrongful hiring or failure to fire claim would not rise above the local church absent authority or actual control. While some denominations are vertically integrated and hierarchical in employment issues, not all are. The autonomy of the local church as to employment issues could limit such a claim to the local church.
Stapler rules, requiring a document elsewhere in the court record to be attached to a particular pleading or other document to be considered, seem anachronistic. Such a rule would only make sense in those remaining states that lag behind in computerization of court records. Unless identification of the document is reasonably in doubt, if it can be considered at all and is not considered only because it is not stapled to the document considered, seems a huge waste of time and litigation cost both for the litigants and the courts. Even in a state like Oklahoma that has generally good computer access to civil case records but where the underfunding of the courts results in judges in the trial courts not having staff attorney assistance such a rule would probably not be enforced absent extra-ordinary circumstances. Nevertheless, church lawyers ever mindful of the resource limitations of their offering funded clients still must anticipate such things and prepare document meticulously.
One of the interesting questions in church law is whether an employment contract with a pastor overrides the Ministerial Exception. The Ministerial Exception is the label for the First Amendment doctrine which excludes some church employment issues from governance by secular law or secular courts. Indeed, the uncertainty in recent years has been to determine the other church jobs that were outside the scope of court and regulatory jurisdiction. Of course, ministers, priests and pastors were outside the scope. Employment contracts raise the uncertainty of whether they remain outside the scope in whole or in part.
In Rev. Lee v Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, Slip Op., 2017 WL 3508140 (WD Penn. 2017) the federal court carefully traced the contours of a written employment agreement with a senior pastor to determine whether the employment relationship or parts of it had been carried outside of the Ministerial Exception. The opinion also contained most of the salient terms of the employment agreement verbatim which might also assist practitioners. The question the court answered was whether the employment contract terminated the applicability of the Ministerial Exception. The Court held that the Ministerial Exception had, indeed, been preserved in its applicability to termination of the pastor by the employment contract. Of course, that reserved for a future case whether some other contract might not.
The language in the employment contract that preserved the Ministerial Exception was a catch all reserve clause that merely stated termination could be “by law” and on “other grounds.” The employment contract also specified “for cause” termination grounds and the church was claiming that the “for cause” grounds had been triggered. The church put on evidence of declining attendance and declining finances, both of which the church labeled as “spiritual stewardship” and “financial stewardship” in the employment contract. The Court held that these grounds for termination were ecclesiastical and triggered the Ministerial Exception because to decide them would lead to “excessive entanglement” in church affairs. For example, the Court would have to decide whether the cause of declining finances was due to mismanagement or declining giving reflecting a loss of confidence in the pastor either of which could be ecclesiastic.
Generally, an employment contract in writing will be enforced even if one of the contracting parties is a church or para-church organization. “A church is always free to burden its activities voluntarily through contracts, and such contracts are fully enforceable in civil court.” Mis v Fairfield College Preparatory School, Slip. Op., 2017 WL 3174422 (Sup. Conn. 2017) (unpublished) (quoting).
The Mis opinion was a trial court order overruling a Motion to Dismiss. Thus, the case continued and the opinion was not the final word. Also, in Connecticut, like most states, obtaining a dismissal is difficult because the factual record has not been developed through any discovery and the Court has only the Plaintiff’s pleading before it which must generally be treated as true regardless of whether it is true unless it is implausible.
In Mis, the Plaintiff was a tenured teacher. The school employment handbook contained a morals clause. For tenured faculty, it also contained a right to a hearing on involuntary termination. The Plaintiff during a school fundraiser was alleged by a church leader to have engaged in immoral conduct, the nature of which was not specified in the Court’s opinion. Upon termination, the teacher demanded the hearing accorded in the handbook. The hearing was conducted and the teacher was exonerated. But, the church terminated the Plaintiff. The opinion of the Court does not explain the reason the church disregarded or overruled the hearing finding, but the Plaintiff sued for breach of contract. The Plaintiff alleged the handbook constituted an employment contract.
One lesson of this opinion might be that a church school should not provide a right to a hearing if the church school does not want to be bound by the outcome of the hearing. Also, the whole concept of “tenure” generally acts to create a contract that has to be limited by specific language in the handbook or contract that would fit tenure to the church school circumstance.
The Ministerial Exception when applicable bars enforcement of most state and federal employment laws against church employers and bars employment claims by most church employees. Church employees are almost always engaged in religious duties in parallel with non-religious duties. Para-church organizations, however, by their hybrid nature force the Courts to inquire more deeply and with some skepticism because the further from the actual church the organization is the murkier the application of the exception probably will be. A church school is a para-church organization if it is a separate corporate or legal entity which for financial and accounting reasons most are.
In Fratello v Archdiocese of New York, 863 F3d 190 (2nd Cir., 2017), the federal appellate court had to decide whether a “lay principal” of a church high school was a “minister” triggering the exception. The Plaintiff’s contract was not renewed for a fifth year as “lay principal.” The Court opinion did not specify the reason for non-renewal. The Plaintiff’s employment contract listed Plaintiff’s job title as “Lay Principal.” But, the courts looked at the actual duties described and performed. Religious instruction by the employee of the students was the primary factor. No formal ordination was required. The Court found that the “lay principal” was delegated religious duties by the local church pastor responsible for the school to the archdiocese. Finding the employee responsible for religious instruction of students triggered the exception and the case was dismissed which the appellate court affirmed.
One lesson from this opinion was that the Court explicitly stated there was no presumption that the principal of a church school was a minister triggering the exception. Counsel with such a case for a church school must convince the church school or its sponsor to search out the record of religious entanglements with the job of the former employee. For example, in Fratello, affidavits or written statements by other school personnel confirmed the Plaintiff’s involvement in religious instruction from the school intercom broadcast of a prayer or other religious message to the actual supervision of religious instruction teachers and classes. There was likely little or no written record of the former and maybe not of the latter.