Abuse of Process is in most states a common law tort based on proof that a lawsuit was used for an improper purpose, typically to obtain what the court in the lawsuit could not otherwise order. Using a lawsuit for improper purposes such as extortion, fraud, or deception is the basis for an abuse of process claim. Because general trial courts typically have the authority to fashion numerous types of remedies, the search to find an extra-legal remedy upon which to base an abuse of process tort claim would be daunting.
In Plishka v Skurla, 2022 Ohio 4744, Slip Op. (OH App. 2022), the Plaintiff was suspended from ministry. Plaintiff claimed that a lawsuit filed by the church hierarchy to force return by replevin of property, allegedly including church relics and other church property, was a subterfuge. The Plaintiff claimed the ulterior motive motivating the replevin lawsuit was to provide a basis for suspension of Plaintiff under church law without a church hearing. The trial court held the abuse of process claim was intertwined in ecclesiastical decisions which the court could not hear. The lawsuit proceeded through motions and a three week jury trial. The jury entered a verdict in favor of the church hierarchy. The verdict awarded the disputed property to the church but awarded no monetary damages. The Plaintiff appealed but the appellate court declined to set aside the trial court’s dismissal of the abuse of process claim and the verdict of the jury remained intact.
The task of summarizing the reported case in a single paragraph was challenging because the reported opinion consumed almost 10,000 words. The opinion’s recitation of the history of the litigation was mesmerizing because all of the litigants were clergy meaning that the funding for the litigation seemed also to have been a notable accomplishment.
Be that as it may, the tort of abuse of process is not often the theory of recovery of choice. Defamation is the more common choice. Defamation does not fare well for the same reason abuse of process may not. Church disciplinary actions, such as suspension or reinstatement of clergy, are inherently ecclesiastical and almost universally will not be reviewed by an American court. Thus, even if a lawsuit was initiated to justify suspension of clergy and to avoid ecclesiastical due process, reviewing the process of suspension to determine if there was a basis for the claim of abuse of process would be beyond the jurisdiction of most American courts.