DeBruin v. Congregation

Decision Date12 July 2012
Docket NumberNo. 2010AP2705.,2010AP2705.
Citation343 Wis.2d 83,816 N.W.2d 878,2012 WI 94
PartiesKathleen DeBRUIN, Plaintiff–Appellant, v. ST. PATRICK CONGREGATION, Defendant–Respondent.
CourtWisconsin Supreme Court

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

For the plaintiff-appellant, there was a brief filed by Alan C. Olson and Alan C. Olson & Associates, S.C., New Berlin, and oral argument by Alan C. Olson.

For the defendant-respondent, there was a brief filed by Nick G. Kotsonis and Zachary J. Davis and Crivello Carlson, S.C., Milwaukee, and oral argument by Nick G. Kotsonis.

ON CERTIFICATION FROM THE COURT OF APPEALS

PATIENCE DRAKE ROGGENSACK, J.

[343 Wis.2d 90]¶ 1 This is an appeal from a decision of the Circuit Court for Walworth County 1 that the court of appeals has certifiedto us pursuant to Wis. Stat. § 809.61 (2009–10).2 We are asked to decide whether, under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution, Kathleen DeBruin's complaint against St. Patrick Congregation (St. Patrick), alleging that her employment was terminated for an improper reason, states a claim upon which relief may be granted. We conclude that it does not. Permitting the continuation of this type of breach of contract or promissory estoppel claim by a ministerial employee,3 who seeks payment based on an allegedly improper reason for being terminated from her employment, would impermissibly interfere in a religious institution's choice of ministerial employees, in violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution.

¶ 2 Therefore, a court may not review whether St. Patrick improperly terminated its ministerial employee because St. Patrick's choice of who shall serve as its ministerial employee is a matter of church governance protected from state interference by the First Amendment and by Article I, Section 18. Accordingly, DeBruin's complaint, which would require a state court to evaluate why St. Patrick terminated its ministerial employee, fails to state a claim upon which a court may grant relief. Therefore, the circuit court correctly dismissedDeBruin's complaint, and its decision is affirmed.4

I. BACKGROUND

¶ 3 St. Patrick is a Catholic church in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. DeBruin began working for St. Patrick in August 2002. On July 1, 2009, St. Patrick entered into a written, one-year employment contract with DeBruin as the Director of Faith Formation. The contract described DeBruin's duties, the annual salary and fringe benefits to which DeBruin would be entitled, the term of the contract, the facilities to which DeBruin would have access as Director of Faith Formation, and the procedures for employee evaluation and annual contract renewal. Additionally, the contract included provisions governing termination of the employment relationship. Relevant to this appeal, the contract provided:

The PARISH agrees that the DIRECTOR OF FAITH FORMATION shall not be discharged during the term of this contract, without good and sufficient cause, which shall be determined by the PARISH. The PARISH agrees that the Pastor of the PARISH will be responsible for giving the employee notice of any dissatisfaction with service or conduct. Dismissal may be immediate or within a time frame determined by the PARISH.

¶ 4 On October 5, 2009, St. Patrick terminated DeBruin's employment. It is undisputed that DeBruin is a ministerial employee.5 It is also undisputed that St. Patrick has paid DeBruin for all of the services she rendered prior to her termination.

¶ 5 In early December 2009, DeBruin filed this lawsuit against St. Patrick. She alleges breach of contract, asserting that St. Patrick terminated her employment “without good and sufficient cause as that term is defined by the Contract of Employment,” and promissory estoppel, based on the same assertion. She seeks payment of $34,150.27, plus interest on that amount. DeBruin asserts that this amount constitutes damages for the period between October 5, 2009, when her employment was terminated, and June 30, 2010, the end of the term of the written contract. Therefore, the damages DeBruin now seeks comprise payments for salary that would have been due if St. Patrick had retained her employment through the full term of the contract.

¶ 6 St. Patrick did not move to dismiss DeBruin's complaint on the basis that St. Patrick terminated DeBruin for “good and sufficient cause” within the meaning of the employment contract. Instead, relying on our decision in Coulee Catholic Schools v. LIRC, 2009 WI 88, 320 Wis.2d 275, 768 N.W.2d 868, St. Patrick moved to dismiss DeBruin's complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, pursuant to Wis. Stat. § 802.06(2)(a)6. St. Patrick asserted that both the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution preclude DeBruin, as a ministerial employee, from obtaining court enforcement of her claims of breach of contract or promissory estoppel based on the allegation that St. Patrick terminated her employment for an improper reason.

¶ 7 At the hearing on St. Patrick's motion to dismiss, St. Patrick argued that, under Coulee, the court could not review St. Patrick's decision to terminate DeBruin. Specifically, St. Patrick noted that DeBruin conceded that she was a ministerialemployee and that St. Patrick is a religious institution. With these two concessions, St. Patrick argued that, under Coulee, state court review of St. Patrick's reason for terminating DeBruin would constitute impermissible interference with St. Patrick's religious mission, in violation of the First Amendment and Article I, Section 18.

¶ 8 DeBruin responded by arguing that Coulee was inapposite in the context of her complaint, because the state antidiscrimination law at issue in Coulee was distinguishable from the neutral principles of law governing contracts and promissory estoppel that would be applied in this dispute. DeBruin claimed that applying such neutral principles of law would not constitute impermissible government action because the court could examine DeBruin's complaint and determine the truth or falsity of her allegations without interfering with the religious institution's mission. Therefore, notwithstanding DeBruin's concessions that she satisfied both parts of the Coulee ministerial employee inquiry, she argued that her complaint could go forward.

¶ 9 After hearing arguments on St. Patrick's motion, the circuit court dismissed DeBruin's complaint. The court agreed with St. Patrick that because St. Patrick is a religious institution and because DeBruin was a ministerial employee, pursuant to our decision in Coulee, DeBruin's complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. DeBruin appealed, and the court of appeals certified the matter to us. We accepted the certification.

II. DISCUSSION
A. Standard of Review

¶ 10 We independently review as a question of law whether a complaint states a cognizable claim. John Doe 1 v. Archdiocese of Milwaukee, 2007 WI 95, ¶ 12, 303 Wis.2d 34, 734 N.W.2d 827. We also independently review St. Patrick's assertion that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution require dismissal of DeBruin's claims. See Jackson v. Benson, 218 Wis.2d 835, 852–53, 578 N.W.2d 602 (1998).

B. Failure to State a Claim

¶ 11 St. Patrick's motion to dismiss DeBruin's complaint was granted at the pleading stage. Such a motion tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint. John Doe 1, 303 Wis.2d 34, ¶ 12, 734 N.W.2d 827. For purposes of the motion, we accept as true all facts well-pleaded in the complaint and the reasonable inferences therefrom. Kaloti Enters., Inc. v. Kellogg Sales Co., 2005 WI 111, ¶ 11, 283 Wis.2d 555, 699 N.W.2d 205. We will dismiss a complaint if it states no legal claim upon which relief can be granted. Id.

¶ 12 St. Patrick asserts that the First Amendment and Article I, Section 18 preclude court review of its reason for terminating DeBruin's employment. Therefore, a court must review the complaint, which incorporates and attaches a copy of DeBruin's employment contract, in light of the effect of the First Amendment and Article I, Section 18 on St. Patrick's decision to terminate DeBruin's employment.

1. First Amendment

¶ 13 The First Amendment of the United States Constitution provides in relevant part: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” U.S. Const. amend. I. The First Amendment is made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment. Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 303, 60 S.Ct. 900, 84 L.Ed. 1213 (1940). First Amendment protections are afforded to institutions,as well as to individuals. Coulee, 320 Wis.2d 275, ¶ 38, 768 N.W.2d 868.

¶ 14 The Fourteenth Amendment does not apply the First Amendment to purely private conduct. Rather, it is when state action infringes on constitutionally protected rights that the Fourteenth Amendment comes into play. See Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1, 13, 68 S.Ct. 836, 92 L.Ed. 1161 (1948). Shelley arose in the context of an equal protection challenge to state court enforcement of a private, racially discriminatory restrictive covenant. Id. at 4–8, 68 S.Ct. 836. Nonetheless, the constitutional principles that underlie Shelley are analogous to other constitutional protections, including those afforded by the First Amendment.

¶ 15 To explain further, Shelley did not begin with governmental action; but rather, it began as racial discrimination in a restrictive covenant, i.e., in a private contract. Kraemer, who was Caucasian and a party to the covenant, sought to enforce the covenant against Shelley, who was African–American and had purchased the property encumbered by the covenant. Id. at 4–6, 68 S.Ct. 836. The participation of the State did not become an issue until...

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