Fassl v. Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church, 100405 PAEDC, 05-cv-0404

Docket NºCivil Action 05-cv-0404
Opinion JudgeGENE PRATTER, District Judge.
Party NameALETHA FASSL, Plaintiff, v. OUR LADY OF PERPETUAL HELP ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH, Defendant.
AttorneyThe undersigned counsel agree as follows:
Case DateOctober 04, 2005
CourtUnited States District Courts, 3th Circuit, Eastern District of Pennsylvania

ALETHA FASSL, Plaintiff,

v.

OUR LADY OF PERPETUAL HELP ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH, Defendant.

Civil Action No. 05-cv-0404

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania.

October 4, 2005

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

GENE PRATTER, District Judge.

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY AND SUMMARY OF DECISION

The Rule 12(b)(1) jurisdictional challenge by the defense here is predicated upon the widely-recognized "ministerial exception" that exempts employment relationships between religious institutions and their "ministers" from various federal employment laws. The specific question before the Court is whether that exception does or should apply to claims under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, 28 U.S.C. § 2601. There are no controlling cases on this issue, and no reported cases either endorse or reject the exception's applicability in this specific context.

On or about March 23, 2004, Aletha Fassl, the former Director of Music for Defendant Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church (the "Church") filed a Writ of Summons against the Church in the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County, docketed at No. C-0048-CV-2004-1951. On or about December 23, 2004, Ms. Fassl filed her Complaint in Northampton County alleging the Church's violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq. ("ADA") (Count I), the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601 et seq. ("FMLA") (Count II) and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, 43 P.S. § 955(d) ("PHRA") (Count III). On January 28, 2005, the Church filed the Notice of Removal based upon federal question jurisdiction. (Docket No. 1)

The Church filed its Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff Fassl's Complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), with exhibits. (Docket No. 2).[1] Plaintiff Fassl thereafter filed a Memorandum of Law in Opposition. (Docket No. 5). The Court held oral argument on April 14, 2005. During oral argument, the Court also issued an order, on the record, permitting the parties to conduct very limited discovery with regard to the Rule 12(b)(1) jurisdiction challenge. Specifically, the parties were authorized to depose Monsignor Sacks, the Church decision-maker here, and Plaintiff Fassl, to assist in the determination of whether the "ministerial exception" applies to all of the Plaintiff's causes of action. In addition to this limited discovery, the parties were to permitted submit post-argument legal memoranda with regard to the Rule 12(b)(1) challenge to the Court's jurisdiction. The parties each submitted a post-hearing memorandum. (Docket Nos. 11 and 12).

Plaintiff never took Monsignor Sacks's deposition. See Stipulation (Docket No. 10). In fact, it appears that no discovery was taken by either side. Instead, the Court received a joint Stipulation from counsel acknowledging that Plaintiff's ADA claim was being withdrawn. The joint Stipulation of Counsel reads in its entirety:

The undersigned counsel agree as follows:

1. The Plaintiff shall voluntarily withdraw her ADA count, which is Count I of her complaint.

2. The undersigned counsel agree that the Plaintiff's job functions as Director of Music for the Defendant were ministerial in nature.

3. The undersigned counsel disagree as to the applicability to the "Ministerial Exception" to the Plaintiff's FMLA count. The Defendant contends that the court does not have jurisdiction to hear the Plaintiff's FMLA count due to the applicability of the Ministerial Exception. The Plaintiff, in response, contends that the Ministerial Exception does not apply to FMLA cases.

Stipulation ¶¶ 1-3 (emphasis added). Thus, the parties have stipulated that Plaintiff Fassl served the Church in a ministerial capacity and, for that reason, Ms. Fassl withdrew her ADA claim, presumably because of the unambiguous case law that holds that the ADA does not apply to churches, if invoked by "ministers." However, Plaintiff Fassl refused to withdraw her FMLA claim, presumably because there has been no similar Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit holding with regard to the FMLA.

For the reasons stated more fully below, the Court finds that Plaintiff's FMLA claim should be dismissed with prejudice. It is clear to this Court that the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit would find the ministerial exception applicable here, as have its sister circuit courts in similar circumstances. See, e.g., Little v. Wuerl , 929 F.2d 944, 947 (3d Cir. 1991). Not only does Plaintiff have no right to relief under the laws invoked, but, as the defendant Church has posited, and as this Court finds, based on the weight of the case law cited, discussed infra, not to mention the clear language from the United States Constitution, [2] Plaintiff filed a frivolous complaint. Moreover, despite being presented with objectively incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, Plaintiff also insisted on pursuing her FMLA cause of action even as she voluntarily withdrew her ADA claim.

All of Ms. Fassl's employment claims in the Complaint are dismissed with prejudice.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Ms. Fassl performed ministerial responsibilities as Director of Music for the Church. See Complaint, ¶¶ 2, 4. See also, Stipulation of Counsel ¶ 2. Through the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy of the U.S. Catholic Conference, the Roman Catholic Church has declared the "preeminent importance" of music, explaining that music is "[a]mong one of the many signs and symbols used by the Church to celebrate its faith." See Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy, Music in Catholic Worship at ¶¶ 23 (2d ed. 1983) (Def. Ex. "B"). Thus, according to the leadership of the Catholic Church, a director of music is "not merely an employee or volunteer. He or she is a minister, someone who shares faith, serves the community, and expresses the love of God and neighbor through music." Id; Liturgical Music Today (1982) (Def. Ex. "C" at ¶ 64). In the Roman Catholic Church, directors of music are "recognized for the special gifts they exhibit in leading the musical praise and thanksgiving of Christian assemblies" and their "ministry is especially cherished by the Church." Id. at ¶ 63.

The defendant Church contends that it follows these teachings and guidance. The Church's Director of Music is a non-ordained liturgical minister who is an integral part of the pastoral and spiritual mission of the Catholic Church. See Affidavit of Rev. Msgr. Sacks (Def. Ex. "D"). The Church contends that the necessary qualifications for its Director of Music go far beyond musical experience and skill. Rather, the qualifications for Director of Music include an ability to teach, to lead, and to evoke active participation of the people in all liturgical celebrations and an ability to work with the volunteers who freely give their time and talent to the group that the Church deems to be its music ministry. Thus, the position of Director of Music is significantly distinguished from that of purely custodial, clerical or office personnel. At this Church, the Director of Music reportedly requires a thorough "understanding of and love for" the Liturgy of the Church and the relationship of music to the liturgical life of the Church. Id . Furthermore, as the Church announces on its website, "[t]he celebration of the Liturgy is the primary activity of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Coming together as a parish to praise and worship God is the main reason we exist... [m]usic in the Liturgy is an essential element for true worship." See (Def. Ex. "E" at pp. 1-2) ("Liturgical Ministries" and "Liturgical Music Ministry"). Rev. Msgr. Sacks also states that music serves a unique function in worship by virtue of its capacity to uplift the spirit and manifest the relationship between the individual or congregation and God. See (Def. Ex. "D"). The Monsignor explains that the efforts of a music minister thus can influence the spiritual and pastoral mission of his parish as much as one who leads the congregation in prayer, preaches from the pulpit, or teaches theology in school. Id.

Among other duties at the Church, the Director of Music is responsible for choosing music that reflects and enhances the theme of the Scriptures to be the subject on the specific day and assists the congregants "in their individual journeys of faith." Thus, according to the Church, the responsibilities of the Director of Music, as summarized in the Church Job Description, are integral to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the Church, including the spiritual growth and development of the parish members. Id . See also, Job Description (Def. Ex. "F").

Ms. Fassl has admitted, by written stipulation, that her responsibilities as Director of Music were ministerial in nature. Moreover, according to Ms. Fassl's December 20, 2001 written resignation, she played, sang and/or directed three to five masses per weekend, planned music for liturgies, scheduled and trained the cantors, directed multiple Church choirs, chaired the "Renew 2000" liturgy team, and prepared and played for penance services, all school liturgies, all other Holy Days, and contemporary and teen music groups among her enumerated duties. See (Def. Ex. "D").

Furthermore, in subsequent written communications to Msgr. Sacks and fellow Church members, Ms. Fassl made similar admissions of her role as a "minister" within the Church. In her January 9, 2002 e-mail to Msgr. Sacks, Ms. Fassl stated "I've always known that I am God's instrument." Likewise, in her March 18, 2002 e-mail to Msgr. Sacks, Ms. Fassl stated her belief that she "belong[ed], heart and soul, to [the Church] music ministry." In her March 31, 2002 e-mail to Msgr. Sacks, Ms. Fassl expressly referred to her former employment as the "ministry that [she] devoted most of [her] life to". (See Def. Ex."D") (emphasis added).

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