United Methodist Church v. White, 88-1100.

Citation571 A.2d 790
Case DateMarch 05, 1990
CourtCourt of Appeals of Columbia District

571 A.2d 790

John R. WHITE, Appellee.

No. 88-1100.

District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

Argued October 2, 1989.

Decided March 5, 1990.

Thomas E. Starnes, with whom Thomas R. Kline, Washington, D.C. was on brief, for appellant.

Clement Theodore Cooper, Washington, D.C. for appellee.

Before ROGERS, Chief Judge, and FERREN and BELSON, Associate Judges.

ROGERS, Chief Judge:

Appellant United Methodist Church, Baltimore Annual Conference (UMC) appeals from denials of its motions to dismiss the complaint and for reconsideration on the ground that the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment of the Constitution preclude civil courts from adjudicating religious disputes involving the qualifications or fitness of clergy. Appellee John R. White alleged that he was wrongfully discharged as a minister in the United Methodist Church, Baltimore Annual Conference and sought his reinstatement in addition to compensatory and punitive damages for alleged breaches of his employment contract. We reverse.


John R. White was an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, Baltimore Annual Conference.1 He served as pastor at a number of United Methodist churches from 1970-85, and as a chaplain in the United States Air Force. In October 1984 he became severely depressed and emotionally disturbed. He was hospitalized for several months in the psychiatric ward at

571 A.2d 791
George Washington University Medical Center. On November 13, 1984, the Executive Committee of the Board of Ministry voted to place Rev. White on a leave of absence pursuant to ¶ 450.1 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, (Discipline). In addition, pursuant to the requirements of the Discipline that a minister on leave of absence may not exercise his ministry beyond the confines of his local church and that his ecclesiastical endorsement must be withdrawn, the Division of Chaplains and Related Ministries, the General Board of Higher Education,2 and the Ministry of the United Methodist Church sent a letter on September 16, 1985, to the Air Force withdrawing Rev. White's ecclesiastical endorsement

A year and one half later, on May 13, 1987, the Baltimore Conference Board of Ministry recommended that Rev. White's conference membership be terminated. In accordance with the Discipline, ¶ 455.1(f), Rev. White was sent notice of the Board of Ministry's action by letter dated May 14, 1987. The contents of the letter were read to him on June 3, 1987. Eight days later, his counsel wrote to the Chairman of the Conference Relations Committee advising that he had "reviewed, in detail, the applicable provision of the Book of Discipline." Although Rev. White had only ten days after receiving notice of the termination of his conference membership to request a church trial, counsel did not request a church trial.

Rev. White's ministerial membership in the Baltimore Conference was terminated on June 9, 1987, pursuant to a vote of the Ministerial Executive Session of the 1987 Annual Conference due to "disobedience to the Order and Discipline of the United Methodist Church." On June 24, 1987, through counsel, he requested a church trial which was denied as untimely.

On March 28, 1988, Rev. White sued UMC for breach of contract seeking reinstatement of his ecclesiastical endorsement, a letter of apology, and compensatory and punitive damages. He also sought a declaration that he had exhausted his administrative remedies and demanded a jury trial. His complaint alleged that he was wrongfully discharged and divested of his ecclesiastical endorsement, denied related hospital and retirement benefits and compensation, and otherwise injured. UMC filed a motion to dismiss the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The motion was denied on May 20, 1988. On June 6, 1988, UMC filed a motion for reconsideration or for allowance of an immediate appeal, which was also denied on July 20, 1988. UMC filed a notice of appeal on August 20, 1988.3 Rev. White then filed a motion to dismiss the appeal on the ground that the order appealed from was not a final order. This court initially dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction, but subsequently granted UMC's petition for rehearing.


Jurisdiction. Under D.C.Code § 11-721(a)(1) (1988), this court has jurisdiction to review all "final orders and judgments" of the Superior Court. In addition, appeals from certain interlocutory orders are permitted where they have a final and

571 A.2d 792
irreparable effect on important rights of the parties.4 See Stein v. United States, 532 A.2d 641, 643 (D.C.1987) (citing Cohen v. Beneficial Indus. Loan Corp., 337 U.S. 541, 545, 69 S.Ct. 1221, 1225, 93 L.Ed. 1528 (1949)). See also Jenkins v. Smith, 535 A.2d 1367 (D.C.1987) (en banc) (affirming Frost v. People's Drug Store, Inc., 327 A.2d 810, 812 (D.C.1974) (interlocutory appeal from denial of motion to dismiss for forum non conveniens)). To come within the narrow exception to the rule of finality as a predicate for appellate jurisdiction, there are three prerequisites
First, it "must conclusively determine the undisputed question"; second, it must "resolve an important issue completely separate from the merits of the action"; third, it must be "effectively unreviewable on appeal from a final judgment."

Stein, supra, 532 A.2d at 643 (quoting Flanagan v. United States, 465 U.S. 259, 265, 104 S.Ct. 1051, 1054, 79 L.Ed.2d 288 (1984)). We hold that the denial of UMC's motion to dismiss on grounds of constitutional immunity meets these three tests.

First, the trial judge, by denying UMC's motion to dismiss and motion for reconsideration, has conclusively determined the disputed issue of UMC's claim of immunity from suit in the civil courts.

Second, the very nature of an immunity claim makes it collateral to and separable from the merits of Rev. White's claim of wrongful termination. The issue in this appeal is whether Rev. White's claims fall, as a matter of law, within the scope of UMC's First Amendment immunity. In contending that the First Amendment protects the church from judicial inquiry into Rev. White's suit, UMC does not address the merits of the assertions in Rev. White's complaint against the church. Rather, UMC contests the authority of the civil courts to adjudicate a dispute between UMC and its pastor. Thus, the elements of UMC's immunity claim are clearly independent of any liability that it may bear for Rev. White's termination. Therefore, the issues raised by the trial judge's denial of UMC's motion to dismiss are collateral to Rev. White's cause of action and will not "affect, or ... be affected by, decision of the merits of this case." Cohen v. Beneficial Indus. Loan Corp., supra, 337 U.S. at 546, 69 S.Ct. at 1225.

Finally, UMC's claim of immunity under the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution will be irreparably lost if not adjudicated before trial. Although Stein concerned an appeal from denial of a motion to dismiss on grounds of statutory immunity, the Supreme Court has extended the same logic to constitutional immunities and guarantees. See Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 525, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 2814, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1986) (essence of governmental immunity claim is freedom from legal liability for immunized acts); Helstoski v. Meanor, 442 U.S. 500, 508, 99 S.Ct. 2445, 2449, 61 L.Ed.2d 30 (1979) (purpose of Speech & Debate Clause immunity to prevent representative from defending themselves); Abney v. United States, 431 U.S. 651, 658-61, 97 S.Ct. 2034, 2039-41, 52 L.Ed.2d 651 (1977) (denial of double jeopardy claim would undermine guarantee not to be tried twice for the same crime).

The First Amendment's Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause grant churches an immunity from civil discovery and trial under certain circumstances in order to avoid subjecting religious institutions to defending their religious beliefs and practices in a court of law. See NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 440 U.S. 490, 503, 99 S.Ct. 1313, 1320, 59 L.Ed.2d

571 A.2d 793
533 (1979). Obviously, if Rev. White's claims fall within the scope of UMC's immunity, once exposed to discovery and trial, the constitutional rights of the church to operate free of judicial scrutiny would be irreparably violated. In short, UMC's immunity claim can be exercised, if at all, only before trial, and must be reviewed pretrial or it can never be reviewed at all. See Mitchell v. Forsyth, supra, 472 U.S. at 526, 105 S.Ct. at 2815

Accordingly, we hold that the denial of UMC's motion to dismiss on grounds of constitutional immunity is immediately appealable as a collateral order, and that we have jurisdiction to review it in this pretrial appeal.


Immunity. The United States Supreme Court has long held that, generally, civil courts are not a constitutionally permissible forum for review of ecclesiastical disputes. Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich (Serbian), 426 U.S. 696, 710, 96 S.Ct. 2372, 2381, 49 L.Ed.2d 151 (1976); Presbyterian Church v. Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 449, 89 S.Ct. 601, 606, 21 L.Ed.2d 658 (1969); Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church, 344 U.S. 94, 116, 73 S.Ct. 143, 154, 97 L.Ed. 120 (1952); Gonzalez v. Roman Catholic Archbishop, 280 U.S. 1, 50 S.Ct. 5, 74 L.Ed. 131 (1929); Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 666, 20 L.Ed. 485 (1871). There are limited exceptions, as, for example, where an employee has provided a purely secular service for the church, civil courts have extended jurisdiction. See Corporation of Presiding Bishop v. Amos, 483 U.S. 327, 330-32, 107 S.Ct. 2862, 2865-66, 97 L.Ed.2d 273 (1987) (building engineer possessed no duties remotely related to religious beliefs or duties); EEOC v. Pacific Press Publishing...

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