Defamation and its cousin, false light invasion of privacy, were much more viable common law claims a century ago. A century ago damage to reputation was taken far more seriously than in the modern age. Defamation is hard to prove and harder to use as a theory of recovery for damages because causation of damages is difficult to prove. False light invasion of privacy has been flatly rejected as a common law cause of action in several states or simply folded into defamation law. In church litigation, defamation and false light claims, where permitted, do not fare well.
In Byrd v Deveaux, Memorandum Opinion (D. Maryland, 2019), the United States District Court granted summary judgment holding the pastor’s false light claim against the denomination and its bishop was barred by the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and the Ministerial Exception. The denomination publicly reported the pastor was placed on administrative leave, and recommended for “non-reappointment,” because alleged commingling of church funds and a loan default that persisted for eight years placed the church property in jeopardy. The pastor argued there was an exception to the applicability of the First Amendment Doctrines when the false light was based on “fraud or collusion.” However, pastor’s authority for the argument, the United States Supreme Court case, Gonzalez v Roman Catholic Archbishop of Manila, 280 US 1 (1929), which recognized the exception in dicta, was rejected as a holding in subsequent decisions. Serbian E. Orthodox Diocese for U. S. of Am. & Canada v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 714 (1976).
Church discipline, both local and denominational, remains outside the preview of secular civil courts because of the First Amendment shield with regard to pastors. While the First Amendment doctrines are more permeable as to non-members of the church or denomination, no such penetration seems likely as to pastors or members. While generally employment matters should be treated confidentially, as current events unfold, that luxury may no longer be available as to employee pastors. The positions of trust that pastors typically earn may simply lead to a level of transparency church organizations require to maintain their own credibility in the face of the failure of a pastor.
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.