Nation Ford Baptist Church Inc. v. Davis, COA20-800

Docket NºNo. COA20-800
Citation866 S.E.2d 11, 279 N.C.App. 599
Case DateOctober 05, 2021
CourtCourt of Appeal of North Carolina (US)

279 N.C.App. 599
866 S.E.2d 11

NATION FORD BAPTIST CHURCH INCORPORATED d/b/a Nations Ford Community Church, Plaintiff,
v.
Phillip RJ DAVIS, Defendant/Third-Party Plaintiff,
v.
Joseph Dixon, Charles Elliot and Douglas Willie, Third-Party Defendants.

No. COA20-800

Court of Appeals of North Carolina.

Filed October 5, 2021


Knox, Brotherton, Knox & Godfrey, by Lisa G. Godfrey, Charlotte, H. Edward Knox, Charlotte, and J. Gray Brotherton, for the Plaintiff- and Third-Party Defendants-Appellants.

Nexsen Pruet, PLLC, Charlotte, by James C. Smith and Nicholas T. Pappayliou, for the Defendant/Third-Party Plaintiff-Appellee.

GRIFFIN, Judge.

279 N.C.App. 601

¶ 1 Plaintiff Nation Ford Baptist Church Incorporated (the "Church") and Third-Party Defendants Joseph Dixon, Charles Elliot, and Douglas Willie (together, the "Elders") appeal the trial court's order denying their motion to dismiss and granting Defendant and Third-Party Plaintiff Phillip R.J. Davis's ("Davis") motion to amend his counterclaim and third-party complaint. The Church and the Elders argue the trial court erred in denying their motion, granting Davis's motion, and concluding Davis had standing to

866 S.E.2d 14

bring the claims asserted in his counterclaim and third-party complaint.

¶ 2 The primary issue presented in this appeal is whether the resolution of Davis's claims would require our Courts to interpret religious matters in violation of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine which stems from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. We hold that there is no guarantee that our Courts will be forced to weigh ecclesiastical matters at this stage of the proceedings. We affirm the decision of the trial court.

I. Factual and Procedural History

¶ 3 The Church was incorporated as a North Carolina nonprofit corporation in 1988. At the Church's time of incorporation, the Elders acted as the Board of Directors for the Church. On 31 March 2016, the Elders hired Davis to serve as Senior Pastor for the Church. Davis was employed on an " ‘at-will’ basis." The employment agreement letter signed by Davis on 31 March 2016 set out his terms of employment, in pertinent part, as follows:

An "at-will" employment relationship has no specific duration. This means that an employee can resign their employment at any time, with or without reason or advance notice. The [C]hurch has the right to terminate employment at any time, with or without reason or advance notice as long as there is no violation of applicable state or federal law.

(Emphasis added).

279 N.C.App. 602

¶ 4 The Record in this case contains two different sets of bylaws, and the parties disagree which bylaws governed the Church's operations during the time relevant to this case. The Church adopted a set of bylaws ("the First Bylaws") on 8 January 1997. On or about April 2008, the Church applied for a bank loan, and incorporated another set of bylaws ("the Second Bylaws") as part of its loan application.

¶ 5 Effective 17 June 2019, the Elders unanimously decided to terminate Davis's employment at the Church. Despite his termination, Davis ignored the instructions of the Church and continued to conduct religious activities at the Church.

¶ 6 The Church initiated this action on 17 September 2019 seeking, inter alia , a preliminary injunction to prohibit Davis from accessing the Church. In response, Davis filed an answer, counterclaim, third-party complaint, and motion for injunctive relief on 24 October 2019. Davis's claims are centered around an employment dispute for which the remedy is dependent upon determining which bylaws governed the Church's actions. An order granting the Church's motion for a preliminary injunction was entered on 30 October 2019.

¶ 7 On 22 April 2020, the Church and the Elders filed a motion to dismiss Davis's counterclaim and third-party complaint. Davis moved to amend his answer, counterclaim, and third-party complaint on 6 May 2020. The court entered an order ("the Order") granting Davis's motion to amend and denying the Church and the Elders’ motion to dismiss on 22 July 2020. According to the Order,

The [c]ourt finds and concludes that (i) this [c]ourt has subject matter jurisdiction over the matters and claims asserted in [Davis]’s Counterclaim and Third-Party Complaint, (ii) [Davis] has standing to bring the claims asserted in his Counterclaim and Third-Party Complaint, and (ii) [Davis]’s Motion to Amend should be granted.

The Church and the Elders timely appeal.

II. Analysis

¶ 8 The Church and the Elders raise three issues on appeal. First, they contend the trial court erred in concluding that it has subject matter jurisdiction over the matters asserted in Davis's amended counterclaim and third-party complaint. Second, they argue the trial court erred in concluding that Davis has standing to bring the claims asserted in his amended counterclaim and third-party complaint. Third, they assert the

279 N.C.App. 603

trial court erred in granting Davis's motion to amend the counterclaim and third-party complaint. We address each issue in turn.

A. Interlocutory Jurisdiction

¶ 9 We acknowledge that this appeal is interlocutory. An interlocutory order

866 S.E.2d 15

is "made during the pendency of an action and does not dispose of the case but requires further action by the trial court in order to finally determine the rights of all the parties involved in the controversy." Flitt v. Flitt , 149 N.C. App. 475, 477, 561 S.E.2d 511, 513 (2002) (citation omitted). There is generally no right to immediately appeal from an interlocutory order. Id. Immediate appeal of an interlocutory order is, however, appropriate when "the challenged order affects a substantial right that may be lost without immediate review." McConnell v. McConnell , 151 N.C. App. 622, 624, 566 S.E.2d 801, 803 (2002) (citation omitted).

¶ 10 A "substantial right" is "a right materially affecting those interests which a man is entitled to have preserved and protected by law: a material right." Oestreicher v. Stores , 290 N.C. 118, 130, 225 S.E.2d 797, 805 (1976) (citation and quotation marks omitted). The appellant has the burden of establishing that a substantial right will be affected unless they are allowed to immediately appeal from an interlocutory order. Jeffreys v. Raleigh Oaks Joint Venture , 115 N.C. App. 377, 379, 444 S.E.2d 252, 253 (1994).

¶ 11 The trial court's Order denying the Church and Elders’ motion to dismiss and granting Davis's motion to amend is an interlocutory order. It was made during the pendency of the action and it does not dispose of the case. However, the Church and the Elders argue that their motion to dismiss should have been granted because resolution of Davis's claims would require the trial court to impermissibly entangle itself in ecclesiastical matters in violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. "First Amendment rights are substantial and ... are implicated when a party asserts that a civil court action cannot proceed without impermissibly entangling the court in ecclesiastical matters." Harris v. Matthews , 361 N.C. 265, 270, 643 S.E.2d 566, 569 (2007). "When First Amendment rights are asserted, this Court has allowed appeals from interlocutory orders." Id. (citation omitted).

¶ 12 The Church and the Elders have asserted a violation of First Amendment rights. Their appeal is properly before this Court.

B. Motion to Dismiss for Ecclesiastical Abstention

¶ 13 The Church and the Elders contend the trial court erred in concluding that it had subject matter jurisdiction over the claims asserted in

279 N.C.App. 604

Davis's amended counterclaim and third-party complaint because the court would be forced to interpret and resolve ecclesiastical questions to resolve the claims.

¶ 14 The standard of review for a trial court's decision to deny a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) is de novo. Tubiolo v. Abundant Life Church, Inc. , 167 N.C. App. 324, 327, 605 S.E.2d 161, 163 (2004) (citation omitted). When ruling on or reviewing a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss, our courts may "consider and weigh matters outside of the pleadings." Id. (citation omitted). Upon review of a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the trial court must accept the allegations in the complaint as true and construe them in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Johnson v. Antioch United Holy Church, Inc. , 214 N.C. App. 507, 510, 714 S.E.2d 806, 809 (2011) (citations omitted).

¶ 15 The trial court properly determined it had subject matter jurisdiction over Davis's claims. "The First Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits a civil court from becoming entangled in ecclesiastical matters." Id. at 510, 714 S.E.2d at 810 (citing Presbyterian Church in U.S. v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Mem'l...

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2 practice notes
  • Mole v. City of Durham, COA 19-683
    • United States
    • North Carolina Court of Appeal of North Carolina (US)
    • October 5, 2021
    ...304 S.E.2d 164, 170 (1983). Because our constitution is to be liberally construed, we urge the Supreme Court to address this issue.10 279 N.C.App. 599 III. CONCLUSION¶ 49 For the reasons explained above, we hold that the trial court erred in dismissing Sergeant Mole's claim for violation of......
  • Nation Ford Baptist Church Inc. v. Davis, 390A21
    • United States
    • North Carolina United States State Supreme Court of North Carolina
    • August 19, 2022
    ...the Supreme Court on 10 May 2022. Appeal pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-30(2) from the decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, 279 N.C.App. 599, 2021-NCCOA-528, affirming an order entered on 22 July 2020 by Judge Carla N. Archie in Superior Court, Mecklenburg County. Knox, Brothert......
2 cases
  • Mole v. City of Durham, COA 19-683
    • United States
    • North Carolina Court of Appeal of North Carolina (US)
    • October 5, 2021
    ...304 S.E.2d 164, 170 (1983). Because our constitution is to be liberally construed, we urge the Supreme Court to address this issue.10 279 N.C.App. 599 III. CONCLUSION¶ 49 For the reasons explained above, we hold that the trial court erred in dismissing Sergeant Mole's claim for violation of......
  • Nation Ford Baptist Church Inc. v. Davis, 390A21
    • United States
    • North Carolina United States State Supreme Court of North Carolina
    • August 19, 2022
    ...the Supreme Court on 10 May 2022. Appeal pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-30(2) from the decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, 279 N.C.App. 599, 2021-NCCOA-528, affirming an order entered on 22 July 2020 by Judge Carla N. Archie in Superior Court, Mecklenburg County. Knox, Brothert......

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