Winkler v. Marist Fathers of Detroit, Inc.

Decision Date21 September 2017
Docket NumberNo. 323511,323511
Citation909 N.W.2d 311,321 Mich.App. 436
Parties Bettina WINKLER, BY her next friends, Helga Dahm WINKLER and Marvin Winkler, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. MARIST FATHERS OF DETROIT, INC., doing business as Notre Dame Preparatory High School and Marist Academy, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtCourt of Appeal of Michigan — District of US

Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard & Walker, PC (by Nicholas Roumel ) and Fried Saperstein Abbatt PC (by Harold S. Fried and Layne A. Sakwa) for Bettina Winkler.

Bodman PLC (by Karen L. Piper and Thomas J. Rheaume, Jr. ) for Marist Fathers of Detroit, Inc.

Amicus Curiae: Chris E. Davis for Michigan Protection & Advocacy Service, Inc.

Before: Sawyer, P.J., and K. F. Kelly and Fort Hood, JJ.

ON REMAND

Per Curiam.

This case returns to us on remand from the Michigan Supreme Court. In this action alleging discrimination under the Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act (PWDCRA), MCL 37.1101 et seq ., this panel, relying on Dlaikan v. Roodbeen , 206 Mich.App. 591, 522 N.W.2d 719 (1994), previously held that the trial court "does not have subject-matter jurisdiction to review plaintiff’s claim based on constitutional protections afforded by the First Amendment." Winkler v. Marist Fathers of Detroit, Inc. , unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals, issued November 12, 2015 (Docket No. 323511), p. 5, 2015 WL 7079054. Therefore, this Court reversed the trial court’s order denying defendant’s motion for summary disposition. In an opinion issued on June 27, 2017, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed this Court’s decision. The Michigan Supreme Court explained:

While Dlaikan and some other decisions have characterized the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine as depriving civil courts of subject matter jurisdiction, it is clear from the doctrine’s origins and operation that this is not so. The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine may affect how a civil court exercises its subject matter jurisdiction over a given claim; it does not divest a court of such jurisdiction altogether. To the extent Dlaikan and other decisions are inconsistent with this understanding of the doctrine, they are overruled. [ Winkler v. MaristFathers of Detroit, Inc. , 500 Mich. 327, 330, 901 N.W.2d 566 (2017). ]

The Michigan Supreme Court remanded the case to this Court to consider defendant’s alternative argument that it was entitled to summary disposition because the PWDCRA does not apply to defendant’s school. Id. at 344, 901 N.W.2d 566.

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

This Court’s earlier opinion recites the following factual history underlying this case:

Notre Dame Marist Academy (Marist) is a private, Catholic middle school in Pontiac, Michigan. Notre Dame Preparatory School (Notre Dame) is a private, Catholic high school in Pontiac, Michigan. Together, Marist and Notre Dame constitute the defendant in this case, Marist Fathers of Detroit, Inc., [doing business as] Notre Dame Preparatory High School and Marist Academy. Plaintiff, Bettina Winkler, enrolled in Marist as both a seventh-grade and eighth-grade student. According to plaintiff’s complaint, she was "assured on numerous occasions that if she enrolled at Marist for 7th and 8th grade, she would be guaranteed placement in Notre Dame Prep for High School 9th grade." However, plaintiff was not granted admission to Notre Dame. Approximately two months after being denied admission to Notre Dame, plaintiff was diagnosed with certain learning disabilities.[1 ] Thereafter, this lawsuit was filed, alleging in pertinent part discrimination under the Persons With Disabilities Civil Rights Act (PWDCRA), [ MCL 37.1101 ] et seq . Plaintiff alleged that despite being "long aware that [she] had a learning disability," defendant denied her admission to Notre Dame and "consistently relied upon her learning disability ... as a justification" for doing so. [ Winkler v. Marist Fathers of Detroit, Inc. , unpub. op. at 1–2.]

Procedurally, in the trial court, plaintiff’s parents, Helga Dahm Winkler and Marvin Winkler, filed a complaint on behalf of their daughter, alleging disability discrimination under the PWDCRA, violation of Michigan’s Consumer Protection Act (MCPA), MCL 445.901 et seq. , and claims of tortious fraud and misrepresentation.2 Defendant moved for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(4) and (10). Defendant claimed that summary disposition was warranted pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(4) and focused primarily on this Court’s prior ruling in Dlaikan , asserting that civil courts lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over a religious school’s admissions decisions pursuant to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Defendant also sought summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), arguing that it was not aware of plaintiff’s disability at the time she was denied admission to the high school and that it had provided accommodations to plaintiff after learning of plaintiff’s disability. Plaintiff responded to the motion, asserting, in relevant part, that defendant’s status as a religious school did not exempt it from being subject to the PWDCRA. Plaintiff further asserted that defendant was on notice in 2012 of plaintiff’s attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis and suspected learning disability. Plaintiff also argued that Dlaikan was not applicable and was factually distinguishable from this case. In reply, defendant asserted that as a private school, it did not fall within the ambit of the PWDCRA.

The trial court issued an opinion and order denying defendant’s motion for summary disposition. As relevant to the issue on remand, the trial court denied defendant’s motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), explaining, in pertinent part, as follows:

While the [PWDCRA] does not expressly address religious schools, it is basic that under rules of statutory construction, words and phrases are to be construed according to the ordinary rules of grammar and dictionary meanings. Here it appears that Notre Dame Prep High School is a public or private institution or school system; Defendant fails to establish that the PWDCRA does not apply to the Notre Dame Prep High School given [the applicable] definitions in the Act. [Citations omitted.]

Defendant filed an application for leave to appeal in this Court, which was granted.3 On appeal in this Court, as relevant to this remand, defendant argued that the PWDCRA is not applicable to religious schools. Plaintiff responded that the PWDCRA was clearly applicable to religious schools given the definition of an educational institution in MCL 37.1401, demonstrating the Legislature’s decision to not exempt such schools.4 As noted, this Court reversed the trial court’s ruling; we concluded the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction because defendant’s actions in denying plaintiff admission to its school were protected by the First Amendment. Accordingly, this Court did not reach the issue whether defendant is an "educational institution" as contemplated by MCL 37.1401.

Plaintiff subsequently filed an application for leave to appeal in the Michigan Supreme Court, and following the submission of briefs and oral argument, the Michigan Supreme Court issued an opinion holding, in pertinent part, as follows:

The existence of subject matter jurisdiction turns not on the particular facts of the matter before the court, but on its general legal classification. By contrast, application of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is not determined by reference to the category or class of case the plaintiff has stated.... What matters instead is whether the actual adjudication of a particular legal claim would require the resolution of ecclesiastical questions; if so, the court must abstain from resolving those questions itself, defer to the religious entity’s resolution of such questions, and adjudicate the claim accordingly. The doctrine, in short, requires a case-specific inquiry that informs how a court must adjudicate certain claims within its subject matter jurisdiction; it does not determine whether the court has such jurisdiction in the first place. The instant panel thus erred, albeit understandably, in deeming summary disposition warranted under MCR 2.116(C)(4), and we reverse that determination. [ Winkler , 500 Mich. at 341, 901 N.W.2d 566 (citations omitted).]

The Michigan Supreme Court noted that defendant, even without disputing "this general understanding of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine," also argued that plaintiff’s claim of an alleged violation of the PWDCRA could not survive application of the doctrine. Id . at 342, 901 N.W.2d 566. Specifically, defendant argued that despite the ability of a civil court to exercise jurisdiction over plaintiff’s "challenge to its admissions decision, the court cannot disrupt that decision or award the plaintiff relief as to it without impermissibly passing judgment on ecclesiastical matters." Id . Defendant’s argument was premised on "an analogy between the students of its high school and the clergy and membership of a church." Id. at 14, ––– Mich. at ––––, 901 N.W.2d 566, 2017 WL 2800040 at *8. Arguing that church authorities maintain the final say in matters of expulsion or excommunication from the church and that civil courts cannot interfere in such decisions, defendant contended that "[a] parochial school’s admission or expulsion of a student is no different ... given the ‘integral part’ such a school can play in furthering ‘the religious mission of the Catholic Church’ and in ‘transmitting the Catholic faith to the next generation.’ " Id. at 343, 901 N.W.2d 566 (citations omitted).

In response, the Michigan Supreme Court stated, in pertinent part:

Whether this analogy is generally sound, and whether it holds up in the instant case (or in Dlaikan , for that matter), we see no reason to reach at this time. It is for the circuit court, in the first instance, to determine whether and to what extent the adjudication of the
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