Sunday, May 19, 2013

Appeals Court Dismisses Suit Alleging Defamation In Church Annulment Proceedings

A Kansas appellate court, in a 2-1 decision, affirmed the dismissal of a suit brought by plaintiff against his former wife alleging that she made defamatory statements to a Catholic Archdiocesan Tribunal in seeking an annulment of their marriage.  The annulment petition claimed plaintiff had been diagnosed as bipolar.  Purdum v. Purdum, (KA Ct. App., May 17, 2013), produced three separate opinions.  Judge Green, while rejecting the trial court's "absolute privilege" rationale, dismissed on Establishment Clause grounds holding that moving forward with the case would excessively entangle the court with the Archdiocese's annulment proceedings.

Judge Bruns concurred, holding that the church autonomy doctrine-- also known as the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine-- applies and requires dismissal of the case. He said in part:
In order for authorities within the Roman Catholic Church to perform their duties in an ecclesiastical annulment proceeding, I believe it is imperative that the parties be free to allege their version of the facts with candor and without fear of being sued in secular courts.
Judge Atcheson dissented, arguing that the defenses put forward are not jurisdictional, and that the case has been dismissed at too early a stage.  He also argued that this case does not threaten undue entanglement:
Purdum alleges that the petition for annulment contains a factual representation about him that is false and defamatory. The representation has nothing to do with his religious beliefs or the Catholic Church's ecclesiastical doctrine or views.... A court or a jury would not be drawn into a theological debate or an evaluation of annulments or other Catholic ritual in assessing the statement's falsity or its defamatory nature. In other words, the forum of publication—as part of a request to the Archdiocese for an annulment—is immaterial to the content of the statement that Purdum says makes it libelous.


Dr. Edward Peters said...

This looks like the right decision to me.

Re the dissent, I’ll need my memory refreshed on this, as it’s been a while since Torts, but to show defamation, must one not show that the claim, to cause actionable harm, was likely to influence the hearer?

If I say about Smith, who never harmed a flea, that “Smith murdered three people” that’s arguably defamatory; but if I say “Smith murdered three people on Mars”, that’s not defamatory because no one would think badly of Smith based on such a claim. Right?

Similarly, if I, as a non-medical person, go around telling folks that Smith, who is as sound as the day is long, is “manic-depressive”, that might be defamatory, because they might think badly about Smith and, I dunno, refuse to hire him or let him in the car-pool or something. But if I, as a non-medical person, tell a psychiatrist that Smith is bi-polar, (a) the professional is not likely to accept my diagnosis at all, and (b) would not think “negatively” about Smith even if it were true.

Well, Catholic tribunals get these kinds of ‘negative’ assertions about people all the time; they are used to them and know what weight, if any, to accord them; and even if the claims are true, the conclusions a tribunal reaches on them, if any, are not “negative” about the people involved.

I don’t see the dissent’s concern.

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