In the present legal environment, church defense lawyers should almost always start with a well-crafted Motion to Dismiss. Indeed, exceptions to that general rule are difficult to conjure. The most prevalent might simply be that churches, as primarily volunteer organizations with little internal infrastructure, might simply be unable to engage counsel and gather the information needed for a Motion to Dismiss, and its higher standards, in the short time available after service of process on the church. In most federal courts and many state trial courts, discovery cannot commence until the case is at issue. Discovery is often the true cost center of litigation because it requires an immense investment of the time of a lawyer. A Motion to Dismiss often delays or limits discovery.
In Presbyterian Church USA v Hon. Brian Edwards, Slip Op. (Ky., 2018), the church was sued in the trial court by a terminated ministerial staff member. The termination allegedly arose from an unauthorized transfer of church funds to another entity incorporated without authorization from the church leadership. There was no allegation of defalcation. The church did not immediately respond to the lawsuit with a Motion to Dismiss on Ministerial Exception grounds. The former employee issued written discovery requests to the church. The trial court ordered the church to respond to the written discovery. The church appealed the decision through an extraordinary writ. The Court of Appeals of Kentucky and then Kentucky Supreme Court reversed the trial court and limited discovery only to the applicability of the Ministerial Exception.
The information needed for a Motion to Dismiss in most employment actions in which it is contemplated that the jurisdiction of the court will be challenged on First Amendment grounds, and especially the Ministerial Exception, will always include the governing documents of the church and church corporation. Job descriptions, employment contracts, if any, and employee manuals, if any, will follow in importance. Church files are notoriously hard to muster, especially if the insider now suing had access. Lastly, church bulletins, newsletters, websites, and internal communications may be needed to persuade that the former employee was, indeed, ministerial in function. Computers never forget and even deleted files can often be recovered.
When the author of this website began practicing, it was the habit to troop over to the courthouse every Friday to attend motion docket. The primary motion heard on those days was the demurrer. A demurrer was like a motion to dismiss but only raised the issue of sufficiency of the petition to state a cause of action. Defendants often filed them to obtain further time to investigate and answer, which meant they were often autonomically overruled. When they were actually heard, the court would read the petition or complaint and if the court thought enough facts were pled to state a cause of action overruled the demurrer. Most were overruled but occasionally the court would act as a gatekeeper and require filing of an amended petition. Demurrers were abolished soon thereafter as the state migrated to its clone of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Nevertheless, vestigial remnants of such doctrines persist. The other rule still in effect in this state is that the order of the trial court will not contain reasons for the decision. To enter an order that “sets forth reasons” is called a “speaking journal entry.” An appellate court may disregard it. If the parties want findings of fact and conclusions of law, they have to request them in advance of any ruling. However, some appellate courts still have similar rules, for good reasons or out of habit.
In St. John Missionary Baptist Church v Flakes, Slip Op. (Tex. Civ. App. 2018), the congregational vote to terminate the pastor was not accepted by the church board members. The pastor and the board continued to handle the assets of the church, including taking out a mortgage of almost a million dollars and preparing to sell other assets. Some of the members filed suit to seek an injunction. The trial court granted a motion to dismiss and plea to the jurisdiction (Texas has not adopted a clone of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure). The trial court’s order was a single sentence that referenced only one of the grounds put forward to support the motion. The appeal was directed at the only grounds set forth in the single sentence order. The appellate court, however, simply affirmed the trial court because there was no challenge to the other grounds for the motion to dismiss raised by the proponent of that motion even though it was also not mentioned by the trial court’s order. That other ground was the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. The appellate court ruled that without a challenge before it of an argument made by the movant in the trial court it was waived. One paragraph containing a legal authority or two would have placed it before the appellate court. The dissent was convinced that ordering additional briefing would not have been against the court’s rules.
Followers of Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine cases would immediately recognize that while a court because of the Ministerial Abstention Doctrine would not entertain an employment case, the exception might be if the employment case arose only from a violation of the church organizational documents in the process of hiring or termination. This seems especially true when the procedural issue arises from a congregation-controlled church. Of course, the other lesson is for counsel to brief all the arguments raised even if counsel believes some arguments deserve only cursory treatment.
The search for theories of recovery that evade the scope of the Ministerial Exception and the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine is ongoing. The theories that seem to offer some hope to aggrieved plaintiffs and to survive motions to dismiss, occasionally, are defamation and interference with contractual relations. However, projecting forward into the future, defamation will almost never yield an economically viable plaintiff’s claim (enough to carry litigation expenses and counsel fees while producing a recovery sufficient to make the risk worthwhile). Also, again projecting, few pastors and only a few denominational leaders will have outside contracts sufficient or provable upon which to base a claim. Nevertheless, as will be noted below, such theories may only survive premised on a faulty appreciation of what constitutes a “church.”
In McRaney v North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, Inc., Slip Op., (ND Miss., 2018), the former Executive Director of the non-party General Mission Board of the Baptist Convention for Maryland was terminated. The Plaintiff claimed the termination resulted from defamation by the American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Court held that they were “separate and autonomous” because both were self-governing, i.e., had their own governing boards. However, the former was a “state convention” of the Southern Baptist Convention and the latter’s board was selected at annual meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention. Indeed, these two “separate and autonomous” entities had eight jointly funded staff positions which Plaintiff supervised. The joint employees were engaged through a “partnership agreement” between the entities. When the partnership agreement came up for renewal, the Plaintiff declined it. That position either caused or resulted from a rift which eventually also led to the termination of Plaintiff. Plaintiff alleged the termination resulted from a threat of the “autonomous” American Mission Board to pull funding if Plaintiff was not terminated. The Plaintiff also claimed that the American Mission Board tried to cancel Plaintiff’s speaking engagements with a “mission symposium” and the Florida Baptist Convention Pastor’s Conference. The Plaintiff claimed that the American Mission Board posted his photograph in the reception area and labeled it in a disparaging manner causing emotional distress. The Court overruled a motion to dismiss, which means the case will proceed into discovery and possibly other dispositive motions, or even trial, before resolution. The Court held the defamation, interference with the speaking engagements and the inducement of termination, which the Court had to assume were true for purposes of the motion, could be decided without interference with ecclesiastical decision-making and that the American Mission Board was not the actual employer so the Ministerial Exception did not apply.
Like all interlocutory decisions, the eventual final decision could result in the opposite result. But, the premise of this decision, that a denomination can be carved up like a holiday turkey in a tort lawsuit, would seem to invite error. While evangelical denominations are often not strictly hierarchical, the components are not fully “autonomous” but rather “connectional.” The Court did not review the governing documents (and may not have been presented the governing documents at this early stage) in the opinion but even so noted that the board of the American Mission Board was interlocked with the Southern Baptist Convention and that the Plaintiff’s former employer was a “state convention.” Thus, none of the alleged defamation was allegedly “published,” i.e., sent outside the confines of the church. The contracts allegedly interrupted were all intra-church relationships. The Court appears to have decided to engage in resolving an intra-church employment dispute brought by an employee the Court held was probably covered by the Ministerial Exception. Nevertheless, the case is moving forward on a defamation theory and a contractual interference theory and if one court will agree to hear more, others might also.
Jefferson Starship’s 1985 tribute to rock’s influence on the “city by the bay” even today transports us to a part of our cultural history. If music can do that in a secular setting, can there be any doubt it can do so in a worship service? Indeed, would not a church seek catharsis wistful or inspired during worship services and use music to obtain it?
In Demikovich v St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, Memorandum and Order, (USDC, ND Ill. ED. September 29, 2017), the federal court dismissed the Plaintiff’s employment discrimination case based on the First Amendment Ministerial Exception. Plaintiff was a part-time employee that self-described his role as “music director, choir director and organist.” In those roles, Plaintiff explained that he selected music played during mass. His selections were not final and were subject to approval. Plaintiff alleged he was fired for entering into a same sex marriage and because of disability arising from overweight and diabetes.
The Court listed the extant “music director” cases and explained that the church “held out [Plaintiff] as a minister, with a role distinct from that of most of its members.” Thus, counsel faced with such a case may want to explore fully the authority the church employee had that a lay member did not. The Court declined to consider final decision-making authority, or its absence, as determinative of whether the church employee was a “minister.” The Court sanely recognized that everyone answers to somebody. The Court held that the fundamental right to marry does not guarantee freedom from private discrimination but only governmental discrimination. The Court did not reach the inquiry of whether “interference with the fundamental right to marry” included discrimination when the decision to marry or the marriage process was not affected by the adverse employment action but only penalized after the fact.
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.
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.
Lawyers have been guilty at times of being mechanistic in responding to the circumstances of a case as if all cases are the same. Fortunately, even though often overwhelmed by numerous cases and with too few staff attorneys to support judicial decisionmaking, judges sometimes are creatively able to reign in a lawsuit.
A good example of this is the preliminary court order in Stabler v Congregation Emanu-El, 2017 WL 3268201 (SD NY 2017). The Plaintiff alleged she was a victim of gender discrimination, age discrimination, and disability discrimination when at age 62, with 17 years of tenure, her job as Librarian ended. She claimed it ended due to unlawful discrimination even though it was characterized, she alleged, by the Defendant as elimination of her position. Unlike many such cases which are nothing more than a claim in search of a factual basis, the Plaintiff alleged sufficient supporting facts causing the Court to deny the Defendants’ Motions to Dismiss. But, rather than simply leave the parties to the usual discovery war, the Court limited discovery solely to the issue of whether the Ministerial Exception applied as pled by the Defendants. The lesson in litigation cost control might be obvious: the Plaintiff’s claim would likely rise or fall on that issue so handle it first and exclusively.
The Plaintiff’s own allegations of her performance “could indicate that she did act as a minister of the Congregation by furthering its mission.” Her claimed accomplishments indicated she had not merely been a custodian of tomes but rather “created a functioning Judaica library” in the impressive and possibly well-known church library. Plaintiff also served on committees with substantial influence. Librarians, so it appeared to have been alleged, of this caliber are not mere custodians but actually define and protect the legacy of the religious scholarship of the church or denomination. A future decision of this Court might become a classic example of when the job title (e.g., “librarian”) does not matter and the substantive nature of the position does in the application of the Ministerial Exception. Best, it might become so by an economically sound litigation limitation.