Hiles v. Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts,

CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
Writing for the CourtSPINA, J.
Citation773 NE 2d 929,437 Mass. 505
PartiesJAMES R. HILES & another v. EPISCOPAL DIOCESE OF MASSACHUSETTS & others.
Decision Date15 August 2002

437 Mass. 505
773 NE 2d 929

JAMES R. HILES & another1
v.
EPISCOPAL DIOCESE OF MASSACHUSETTS & others.2

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Middlesex.

February 4, 2002.

August 15, 2002.


Present: MARSHALL, C.J., GREANEY, IRELAND, SPINA, COWIN, SOSMAN, & CORDY, JJ.

437 Mass. 506
William F. Looney, Jr. (Charles P. Kindregan, Jr., with him) for Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts & others

Clyde D. Bergstresser for Linda M. Hastie.

Stephen C. Hoctor for the plaintiffs.

Gregory S. Baylor, of Virginia, for Christian Legal Society & others, amici curiae, submitted a brief.

SPINA, J.

James R. Hiles, an Episcopal priest, and Lauretta R. Hiles, his wife, filed a sixteen-count amended complaint against the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts and others, alleging defamation, conspiracy, interference with contractual relations, civil rights violations, negligence, assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and loss of consortium. On motions to dismiss filed under Mass. R. Civ. P. 12 (b) (1), (2), and (6), 365 Mass. 754 (1974), a judge in the Superior Court dismissed all but two counts of the complaint; a count for assault and battery and the corresponding count for loss of consortium survived. The counts against Linda M. Hastie for defamation and conspiracy were dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, pursuant to rule 12 (b) (1), on the ground that the facts alleged in the complaint related to ecclesiastical discipline, an activity that is absolutely protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Summary judgment was granted for other defendants on twelve counts pursuant to rule 12 (b), seven on First Amendment (jurisdictional) grounds and five under the summary judgment standard. The Hileses appealed to the Appeals Court, which reversed the judgment, in part, by reinstating the counts against Hastie, and reinstating the counts against M. Thomas Shaw, Third, Bishop

437 Mass. 507
of the Diocese;3 and Barbara C. Harris, Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese, for conspiracy and negligence. See Hiles v. Episcopal Diocese of Mass., 51 Mass. App. Ct. 220 (2001). We granted applications for further appellate review, one filed by Hastie, and the other filed by Shaw and Harris, and now affirm the judgment of the Superior Court, with minor changes as to the form of the judgment on certain counts

1. Background. We summarize the allegations from the amended complaint, supplemented by undisputed facts set forth in affidavits filed in support of, and in opposition to, the motions to dismiss. Hiles was ordained a priest of the Episcopal Church in 1958. He has served as vicar of the Church of Our Saviour, an Episcopal mission in Milton, since about 1970, and also as rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, an Episcopal parish in Brockton, since about 1975. Both churches are constituent parts of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts (Diocese).

The bylaws of each church state that it is bound by and accedes to the constitution and canons of the Diocese and of the national Church.4 The constitution and canons of the Diocese state that the Diocese "accedes to the ... discipline and ... the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America." The constitution and canons of the national Church provide a detailed and comprehensive procedure for the discipline of members of the clergy, including priests.5

437 Mass. 508
The Episcopal Church is a hierarchical religious organization.6 See Parish of the Advent v. Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Mass., 426 Mass. 268, 281 (1997)

In 1990, the Church of Our Saviour (mission) received a bequest of more than $2 million from one of its members, Harriet Brierly Mears. The Diocese demanded that the mission surrender this money, but it refused. The matter became the subject of litigation in the Probate Court, the outcome of which is immaterial to the issues in this appeal. On at least two occasions Shaw asked Hiles to use his influence to end the litigation and persuade the mission to turn over the Mears' bequest to the Diocese. Hiles remained neutral in the dispute, and never recommended that the mission act contrary to ecclesiastical law. Hiles alleged in his complaint that on December 23, 1995, Shaw summoned Hiles to his office, accused him of being stubborn, a bully, and a liar, and struck him with a pen. He also alleged that Shaw warned that he needed to be "taught a lesson on authority and obedience" and expressed his intention to remove Hiles as vicar of that church.

On March 26, 1996, Hastie submitted a letter to Shaw stating that, while she was a parishioner of Hiles, she and Hiles had a sexual relationship that began in the spring of 1970 and lasted until late 1975. Shaw summoned Hiles to his office on March 27, 1996, and informed him of the details of Hastie's letter. Shaw advised Hiles that he had informed the standing committee of the Diocese of the nature and allegations of Hastie's letter, "without judgment or comment upon the allegations or guilt," in accordance with Title IV, Canon 3, § 5, of the constitution and canons of the national Church,7 and that, under the Constitution and canons, an investigation would be

437 Mass. 509
undertaken. Shaw then placed Hiles under a temporary inhibition prohibiting him from functioning as a priest pending the outcome of the disciplinary proceedings, pursuant to Title IV, Canon 1, § 2 (a), of the national Church canons. Shaw also ordered Hiles not to communicate with Hastie or disclose or discuss any details of the case with anyone except those persons involved in the disciplinary process, his spouse, legal counsel, or spiritual advisor, and indicated that he would pursue disciplinary sanctions if Hiles disclosed Hastie's identity or any identifying details about her to anyone outside the disciplinary process. Shaw also forbade Hiles from attending any services or programs at the Church of Our Saviour or at St. Paul's during the period of the inhibition

By letter dated March 28, 1996, Shaw and Harris notified all clergy of the Diocese that Hiles had been relieved of his duties due to charges of sexual misconduct. The letter stated: "The press has been informed and there will be no further comments on the particulars of this situation until it has been resolved."

The standing committee convened on April 11, 1996, to consider the charge and determined that, if the allegations were true, an offense as defined in the canons may have been committed. It referred the matter to the Church attorney for investigation, all pursuant to Title IV, Canon 3, §§ 11 and 12, of the national Church canons. On May 6, 1996, Hastie formally charged Hiles with the offenses of immorality and conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy.8 She did so as victim of the alleged conduct.9

The Hileses filed their complaint on May 13, 1996. They alleged that Hastie's allegations of sexual misconduct were false, and that she conspired with the other defendants to destroy

437 Mass. 510
Hiles's reputation for the purpose of bringing pressure on the mission to relinquish its bequest under the Mears' estate.

On August 6, 1996, the standing committee issued a presentment against Hiles alleging four offenses: (1) immorality; (2) conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy; (3) violating Title IV, Canon 3, § 19 (confidentiality of proceedings prior to presentment), by filing a complaint in the Superior Court and making public statements; and (4) violating Title IV, Canon 14, § 2 (prohibiting resort to secular courts for the purpose of delaying and hindering the standing committee's consideration of the charge, the Church attorney's investigation and report, and the standing committee's determination whether a presentment should issue),10 by filing a complaint in the Superior Court.

2. Internal church discipline. The judge dismissed nine of the sixteen counts of the complaint on First Amendment (free exercise of religion clause) grounds, ruling that the court lacked jurisdiction because deciding those claims "would result in judicial interference with the Diocese's discipline of one of its clergymen." Hiles argues that the court had jurisdiction over the subject matter of those claims because they were secular in nature, and their adjudication would not infringe on the defendants' free exercise of their religion.

"[T]he First Amendment prohibits civil courts from intervening in disputes concerning religious doctrine, discipline, faith, or internal organization." Alberts v. Devine, 395 Mass. 59, 72, cert. denied sub nom. Carroll v. Alberts, 474 U.S. 1013 (1985), and cases cited. It "permits hierarchical religious organizations to establish their own rules and regulations for internal discipline and government, and to create tribunals for adjudicating disputes over these matters." Wheeler v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, 378 Mass. 58, 61, cert. denied, 444 U.S. 899 (1979), citing Serbian E. Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 724 (1976). The assessment of an individual's fitness to serve as a priest is a particular ecclesiastical matter entitled to this constitutional protection. See Alberts v. Devine, supra at

437 Mass. 511
72-73, citing Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U.S. 94, 116 (1952).

"The relationship between an organized church and its ministers is its lifeblood. The minister is the chief instrument by which the church seeks to fulfill its purpose. Matters touching this relationship must necessarily be recognized as of prime ecclesiastical concern." McClure v. Salvation Army, 460 F.2d 553, 558-559 (5th Cir. 1972). The relationship is considered "intrinsically religious." Williams v. Episcopal Diocese of Mass., 436 Mass. 574, 578 (2002). See EEOC v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, 213 F.3d 795, 800 (4th Cir. 2000) (relationship with minister is "the most spiritually intimate grounds of a religious community's existence"); Minker v. Baltimore Annual...

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42 practice notes
  • Thibodeau v. Am. Baptist Churches Of Conn., No. 30260.
    • United States
    • Appellate Court of Connecticut
    • 27 de abril de 2010
    ...several other cases in which defamation had been alleged by clergy. In one such case, Hiles v. Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, 437 Mass. 505, 773 N.E.2d 929 (2002), an Episcopal priest had been accused by a parishioner of an improper sexual relationship, and the priest alleged that the ......
  • Maffei v. Roman Catholic Archbishop Boston, No. SJC-09807.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
    • 25 de maio de 2007
    ...Williams v. Episcopal Diocese of Mass., 436 Mass. 574, 579, 766 N.E.2d 820 (2002). See Hiles v. Episcopal Diocese of Mass., 437 Mass. 505, 515, 773 N.E.2d 929 (2002); Wheeler v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, 378 Mass. 58, 61, 389 N.E.2d 966, cert. denied, 444 U.S. 899, 100 S.Ct. 208......
  • Flagg v. Alimed, Inc.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
    • 19 de julho de 2013
    ...v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mass., Inc., 442 Mass. 64, 66, 809 N.E.2d 1034 2004). See also Hiles v. Episcopal Diocese of Mass., 437 Mass. 505, 519, 773 N.E.2d 929 (2002). We agree with the judge that the plaintiff's complaint does not meet this standard. The plaintiff alleges that AliMed......
  • Pfeil v. St. Matthews Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession of Worthington, No. A14–0605.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Minnesota (US)
    • 6 de abril de 2016
    ...accusation that was used to initiate those proceedings could be tested in a civil court." Hiles v. Episcopal Diocese of Mass., 437 Mass. 505, 773 N.E.2d 929, 937 (2002).In essence, respondents argue that immunity from defamation suits based on statements made during church disciplinary proc......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
42 cases
  • In re Lubbock, 20-0127
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Texas
    • 11 de junho de 2021
    ...statements were made only internally, solely to the organization's leaders or members. In Hiles v. Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts , 437 Mass. 505, 773 N.E.2d 929 (2002), for example, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that an Episcopalian priest could not sue a parishioner......
  • Flagg v. Alimed, Inc.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
    • 19 de julho de 2013
    ...v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mass., Inc., 442 Mass. 64, 66, 809 N.E.2d 1034 2004). See also Hiles v. Episcopal Diocese of Mass., 437 Mass. 505, 519, 773 N.E.2d 929 (2002). We agree with the judge that the plaintiff's complaint does not meet this standard. The plaintiff alleges that AliMed......
  • Thibodeau v. Am. Baptist Churches Of Conn., 30260.
    • United States
    • Appellate Court of Connecticut
    • 27 de abril de 2010
    ...several other cases in which defamation had been alleged by clergy. In one such case, Hiles v. Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, 437 Mass. 505, 773 N.E.2d 929 (2002), an Episcopal priest had been accused by a parishioner of an improper sexual relationship, and the priest alleged that the ......
  • Maffei v. Roman Catholic Archbishop Boston, SJC-09807.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
    • 25 de maio de 2007
    ...Williams v. Episcopal Diocese of Mass., 436 Mass. 574, 579, 766 N.E.2d 820 (2002). See Hiles v. Episcopal Diocese of Mass., 437 Mass. 505, 515, 773 N.E.2d 929 (2002); Wheeler v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, 378 Mass. 58, 61, 389 N.E.2d 966, cert. denied, 444 U.S. 899, 100 S.Ct. 208......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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