Lott v. Eastern Shore Christian Center

Decision Date14 January 2005
Citation908 So.2d 922
PartiesWilliam B. LOTT, Jr. v. EASTERN SHORE CHRISTIAN CENTER and Anthony Legear.
CourtAlabama Supreme Court

Gregory C. Buffalow of Miller Hamilton Snider & Odom, LLC, Mobile, for appellant.

Mark D. Ryan, Bay Minette, for appellees.

WOODALL, Justice.

William B. Lott, Jr., appeals from the denial of three motions, namely, a motion for a temporary restraining order ("TRO"), and two motions for rule nisi. We affirm.

The motion for a TRO was one of two documents Lott filed on July 19, 2004, seeking relief against the Eastern Shore Christian Center, an Assembly of God church located in Daphne ("the Church"), of which he was a member, and its senior pastor, Anthony Legear. The other document was a "Verified Petition to Obtain Discovery and Complaint for Other Relief" ("the discovery petition"). The discovery petition sought an order requiring the Church to make certain of its financial records available to Lott for inspection and copying. It also sought an order "[a]uthorizing counsel for [Lott] to conduct a deposition of Pastor Legear, following review of the [records]."

The motion for a TRO sought an order restraining the Church from taking disciplinary action against Lott, in particular, from taking disciplinary action in the form of "expulsion from Church membership." More specifically, the motion stated:

"It is further demonstrated by verification of [Lott] that [the Church], in response to prior requests by [Lott] and other members sharing his concerns, for access to records as aforesaid that [the Church has attempted] to condition review of records on dismissal of this action, on limitation on rights of access and copying, and ultimately, when agreement could not be reached for access and copying of records, [the Church has] threatened the undersigned counsel to `address discipline of your clients which includes expulsion from the church membership'. . . ."

(Some emphasis added; some emphasis omitted.)

The following day, the trial court conducted a hearing on the discovery petition and the motion for a TRO. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial judge orally granted the discovery petition, stating, in pertinent part:

"I will enter an order allowing [Lott] to inspect and copy the financial records of the Church, which, I would assume, would be bank statements, credit card statements . . . and if they have maintained a ledger with journal entries, . . . that sort of stuff. . . . That would allow [Lott] to obtain the information that he wants to obtain. . . ."

However, the court denied the TRO motion, stating, in part:

"But I can tell you that this judge isn't going to get involved in the government of a church, because I don't think I have any jurisdiction over who is a member, or not a member, or what is contained in the constitution or the bylaws or anything of that nature. So the court is going to deny the application for the TRO respecting the restraining order from the church taking any action against the members to . . . discipline [them]."

(Emphasis added.)

Meanwhile, that same day, at a meeting of Legear and the other members of the Church's "official board,"1 the board unanimously voted to "rescind and withdraw" the names of Lott and his wife "from the current membership roster." Lott was informed of the board's action by a letter dated July 20, 2004, which stated:

"At a meeting today of the Official Board of Eastern Shore Christian Center it was the unanimous decision of said Board to rescind and withdraw your names from the current membership roster.
"This decision is in compliance with both our Constitutional Documents and the Holy Scriptures which direct Church leaders in matters of spiritual conduct and oversight.
"Bylaws—Article III-Sections 3 & 5 Discipline of Members; Severance of Membership; Article III-Section 1(d)
"It is the observation of this Board that Bill and Edyie Lott have been aggressively contributing to the division within the Church Body—exhibiting a disruptive and divisive spirit contrary to the spirit of Christ and the character of goodness prescribed in the scriptures (Titus 3:1-15; Matt. 18:15-18; Proverbs 6:16-19; I Cor. 5:11). It is also very clear that the Lotts reject Pastoral leadership and are aggressively engaged in encouraging others in an attempt to further disrupt the congregation.
"This Board, in behalf of the Congregation, hereby disqualifies your membership and removes your names from the Assembly rolls. Per the Constitution & Bylaws of our Fellowship, those whose names have been removed may appeal to the Board in writing. Any review of such appeal and subsequent action by the Board will be considered final (By-laws —Section 5)."

(Emphasis added.)

The following day, July 21, 2004, Lott filed his first motion for a rule nisi, namely, a "Motion for Order to Show Cause Why Respondents Should Not Be Held in Contempt." It stated:

"[Lott] moves the court for an order to show cause why [the Church and Legear] should not be held in contempt for failure to comply with the court ruling of July 20, 2004, providing that `any member' may inspect and copy financial records, and as grounds therefor shows as follows:
"1. Following the court ruling, Member Steve Ingersoll has been refused access to inspect and copy records of [the Church] for the stated reason that only Mr. Lott could inspect and copy. This is inconsistent with the court's ruling.
"2. [The Church and Legear] have also, in contravention of bylaws of [the Church], purported to terminate membership of Petitioner, William B. Lott, Jr., and threatened to terminate other members, without following notice and procedure required by bylaws and/or the Assembly of God organization. . . .
"3. [The Church and Legear] have advised counsel that a special meeting on July 20, 2004, purported to terminate membership and [the Church and Legear] failed to provide at least fourteen (14) days notice as required by Article VIII, Sec. 2 and 3 of the bylaws. . . .
"4. On enforcement of contempt powers, the court should set aside this membership action based on violation of [Lott's] property interests and due process rights. Jurisdiction is supported by Yates v. El Bethel Primitive Baptist Church, 847 So.2d 331 (Ala.2002), where the trial court action was affirmed, in setting aside a due process violation, where the church contravened its own procedures. The basis of the ruling was, in part, a consideration whether the church business in question `was preceded by adequate notice to the full membership. . . .' Id. at 336.
"5. The court has jurisdiction to enter the requested relief in order to enforce its judgment of July 20, 2004, and punish the contempt of [the Church and Legear] in flagrant disregard and disrespect for the ruling of this court."

(Emphasis added.)

That same day, July 21, 2004, Lott's legal counsel received by facsimile a letter from counsel for Legear and the Church; that letter stated:

"The Official Board of the [Church] met in a specially called meeting on July 20, 2004, and unanimously voted to sever your client's membership with the church for violation of the membership standards as set forth in the constitution and the exhibition of a disruptive and divisive spirit contrary to spiritual guidelines. . . .
"A number of other individuals were subject to the same disciplinary action by the Church Board.
"As your client is no longer a member of the [Church], he nor his representatives will be allowed to review and copy documents of the Church.
"It is very unfortunate that the Church Board felt compelled to take such drastic action, but the unity of the Church is of foremost importance to the Board."

(Emphasis added.)

On July 23, 2004, Lott's counsel received another letter from the Church's counsel by facsimile transmission; that letter stated:

"I have been contacted by numerous staff members and Board Members regarding your client's conduct. Mr. Lott has been harassing [Legear] on the phone, repeatedly going to the church premises and causing severe disruption, as well as attempting to involve the Daphne Police Department by having an officer appear at the church `to witness Bill "serving" documents upon a staff member.'
"It is this irrational disruptive course of conduct that Mr. Lott and several other former members of the church have been engaged in that led [to] their severance. Please advise your client to immediately cease any further contact with [Legear] or the Board Members. Also, advise your client that he is no longer allowed on the premises of the [Church]. If he returns after warning, this activity will be considered a criminal trespass."

(Some emphasis added; some emphasis omitted.)

Meanwhile, on July 22, 2004, Lott filed a second "Motion for Order to Show Cause Why Respondents Should Not Be Held in Contempt." In addition to the grounds stated in the first motion, the second motion alleged: "Following receipt of the ruling in chambers on July 20, 2004 . . ., [the Church and Legear] have exhibited contempt for the court by refusing [Lott's] request for access and copying of records." On July 30, 2004, Lott filed a "motion to compel and request for sanctions."

The trial court denied the two rule nisi motions, and declined to rule on the motion to compel. On August 3, 2004, Lott appealed from that denial and from the denial of his motion for a TRO.2 We will first consider the motion for a TRO, which sought to preempt any disciplinary action by the Church. Next, we will address the post-disciplinary show-cause motions, which sought to hold the Church and Legear in contempt for not allowing discovery on the basis of the disciplinary action taken, i.e., for not allowing discovery on the basis that Lott was no longer a member of the Church.

I. The Motion for a TRO

The elements required for the issuance of a TRO are the same as the elements required for the issuance of a preliminary injunction. Butler v. Alabama...

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