810 A.2d 871 (D.C. 2002), 01-CV-471, Heard v. Johnson

Docket Nº:01-CV-471.
Citation:810 A.2d 871
Party Name:Morris B. HEARD, et al., Appellants, v. C. Phillip JOHNSON, Appellee.
Case Date:November 21, 2002
Court:Court of Appeals of Columbia District
 
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810 A.2d 871 (D.C. 2002)

Morris B. HEARD, et al., Appellants,

v.

C. Phillip JOHNSON, Appellee.

No. 01-CV-471.

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

November 21, 2002.

Argued Sept. 3, 2002.

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Norman R. Evans; and Deborah E. Kane, Lanham, MD, for appellant.

Clement T. Cooper, Washington, DC, for appellee.

Before GLICKMAN and WASHINGTON, Associate Judges, and NEWMAN, Senior Judge.

NEWMAN, Senior Judge:

The trustees of Mount Airy Baptist Church (Trustees) contend that they are entitled to the protections of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment in defending against a claim of defamation that arose from the removal of their former pastor. We agree.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

A. Facts

Mount Airy Baptist Church (Mt. Airy or church) is a nonprofit religious corporation founded in 1893 and incorporated under the laws of the District of Columbia in 1901. In 1986, the church adopted a constitution and bylaws which vest governing authority in its congregation, thus explicitly making Mt. Airy a congregational church. Mt. Airy also adopted Hiscox's Principles and Practices for Baptist Churches (Edward T. Hiscox, Principles and Practices for Baptist Churches, 3d ed.1980 (originally published as The New Directory for Baptist Churches)) as its guide in matters of church discipline and procedure.

In July of 1994, Mt. Airy hired Rev. C. Phillip Johnson (the plaintiff in this case) to be its pastor, an arrangement that was formalized by a written contract. The termination clause of the contract required both that the church request Johnson's resignation prior to taking a vote to terminate his employment as pastor, and that a

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vote to terminate would only be binding on Johnson if a two-thirds majority voted to remove.

By the end of 1997, the congregation was dissatisfied with Johnson's services and voted to terminate his status as pastor during a business meeting of the church. Johnson did not acknowledge this vote as binding, did not step down, and continued to preach from Mt. Airy's pulpit. The Trustees then filed suit on behalf of the church seeking an injunction prohibiting Johnson from entering the church. Hollingsworth, et al. v. Johnson, Case No. 98-CA-65 (D.C.Super.Ct. February 11,1998). The trial court found that because the congregation had not asked for Johnson's resignation before voting to discharge him, the attempted termination of Johnson's employment as Mt. Airy pastor had violated the termination clause of Johnson's contract. The court therefore declined to issue the injunction. Id.

The congregation held another business meeting on February 21, 1998. At this meeting, the congregation asked Johnson to resign, but he indicated he would not tender his resignation. The congregation then voted to end Johnson's services as pastor of Mt. Airy by a vote of 185 to 142. Because the majority did not reach the requisite two-thirds, Johnson continued as pastor of the church.

On April 18, 1998, the congregation met again, and this time voted to end Johnson's pastorship by a vote of 130 to 2. Johnson felt that the vote was invalid and declined to honor it. He continued to appear at the church on Sundays and preach. At this point, the difficulties and tensions surrounding Johnson's tenure at Mt. Airy [1] gave rise to physical altercations at the church. This, in turn, prompted the Trustees to lock the doors of the church in an effort to prevent further violence while the situation was being resolved.

Johnson then sued the Trustees claiming wrongful eviction, challenging his termination, and seeking an injunction preventing the Trustees from barring his access to the church. Mt. Airy Baptist Church v. Hollingsworth, Case No. 98-CA-4230 (D.C.Super.Ct. September 21, 1998) (dismissed on First Amendment grounds for lack of subject matter jurisdiction). By consent order, during the remaining pendency of the wrongful eviction case (July 2, 1998 to September 21, 1998), Johnson was permitted to preside over some services at the church. Throughout this period, Johnson continued to hold himself out as the pastor of Mt. Airy.

Sometime during September, before the conclusion of Johnson's wrongful eviction case, a group calling itself the "Coalition of Concerned Members" produced an eighty-five-page manual documenting the grievances against Johnson, the reasons for his dismissal as pastor, and the attempts the congregation had made to remove Johnson as pastor of Mt. Airy. This manual has become the sole remaining subject of the present case.

B. Procedure

This case began when Johnson filed a complaint against the Trustees on February 18, 1999, alleging (1) defamation, (2)

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invasion of privacy and distortion of likeness, (3) breach of employment contract, (4) intentional infliction of emotional distress, and (5) negligent infliction of emotional distress. Johnson v. Heard, Case No. 99-CA-1124 (D.C.Super.Ct.). The Trustees moved to dismiss as to all claims, and the trial court (J. Edwards) entered an order granting this motion in part. Specifically, the trial court dismissed in their entirety both the claim for breach of contract (finding a lack of subject matter jurisdiction based on First Amendment grounds), and the claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress (for failure to properly state a claim). Id., Order Granting in Part Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, dated August 27, 1999. The trial judge allowed claims (1), (2), and (4) to continue as alternative theories of liability only for the alleged publication of the manual. Id.

The Trustees then filed another motion to dismiss, combined with an alternative motion for summary judgment, requesting that the remaining claims be dismissed under Super. Ct. Civ. R. 12(b) for either lack of subject matter jurisdiction based on First Amendment grounds, or failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, or, in the alternative, that summary judgment be granted to the Trustees under Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56. Johnson opposed the new motion to dismiss and filed a cross motion for summary judgment. In an order dated October 23, 2000, the trial court denied both the Trustees' motion to dismiss and/or for summary judgment and Johnson's cross motion for summary judgment. The Trustees then filed a motion for reconsideration, which was opposed by Johnson and subsequently denied by the trial court on March 29, 2001. The Trustees have now appealed the trial court's denial of their motion to dismiss and/or for summary judgment. Johnson did not file a cross appeal.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Jurisdiction

As a threshold matter, we must consider whether we have jurisdiction to hear this interlocutory appeal. This court has jurisdiction to review all "final orders and judgments" of the Superior Court. D.C.Code§ 11-721(a)(1) (2002). Any "lack of finality is a bar to appellate jurisdiction." Dyer v. William S. Bergman & Assocs., 635 A.2d 1285, 1287 (D.C.1993). An order is final when it "dispose[s] of the whole case on its merits so that the court has nothing remaining to do but execute the judgment or decree already rendered." Id. (quoting Trilon Plaza Co. v. Allstate Leasing Corp., 399 A.2d 34, 36 (D.C.1979) (internal citation omitted)). An order denying a motion to dismiss ordinarily does not meet this standard of finality [2] and usually is not immediately appealable.

The collateral order doctrine, however, provides a narrow exception to the finality requirement. See Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 525, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 2815, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985); United Methodist Church v. White, 571 A.2d 790, 791-92 (D.C.1990). Under the collateral order doctrine, a decision "is appealable if it falls within that small class which finally determine claims of right separable from, and collateral to, rights asserted in the action, too important to be denied review and too independent of the cause itself to require that appellate consideration be deferred until the whole case is adjudicated." Mitchell, 472 U.S. at 524-25, 105 S.Ct. at 2814-15 (citing Cohen v. Beneficial Indus. Loan Corp., 337 U.S. 541, 546, 69 S.Ct. 1221, 1225-26, 93 L.Ed. 1528 (1949)) (internal

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quotations omitted). Put more simply, a ruling such as an order denying a motion to dismiss may be appealable if it has "a final and irreparable effect on the important rights of the parties." Bible Way Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith v. Beards, 680 A.2d 419, 425 (D.C.1996) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted), cert. denied, 520 U.S. 1155, 117 S.Ct. 1335, 137 L.Ed.2d 494 (1997). A ruling on a motion to dismiss will qualify for immediate appellate review if it: (1) conclusively determines a disputed question of law; (2) resolves an important issue that stands completely separate from the merits of the case; and (3) is effectively unreviewable on appeal from a final judgment. See Bible Way Church, supra, 680 A.2d at 425-26.

An order denying a Rule 12(b)(1) motion that asserts an immunity from law suits is the type of ruling "commonly found to meet the requirements of the collateral order doctrine and thus be immediately appealable, so long as the ruling turns on an issue of law rather than on a factual dispute." Finkelstein, Thompson & Loughran v. Hemispherx Biopharma, Inc., 774 A.2d 332, 340 (D.C.2001) (citing Johnson v. Jones, 515 U.S. 304, 313, 115 S.Ct. 2151, 2156, 132 L.Ed.2d 238 (1995)); see also Mitchell, supra, 472 U.S. at 525-29, 105 S.Ct. 2814-17. A claim of immunity from suit under the First Amendment is just such an issue of law, and this court has held that a defendant church may appeal the denial of a motion to dismiss where the motion was based...

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