Saturday, May 03, 2014

Defamation Claim Between Hindu Temple Members Dismissed

In Thiagarajan v. Tadepalli, (TX App., April 30, 2014), a three-judge panel of the Texas Court of Appeals dismissed under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine both a defamation action against the secretary of the board of directors of a Hindu temple, and (by a 2-1 vote) a claim by the secretary against the Temple for indemnification for the costs of defending the action.  At issue were the alleged defamatory content of e-mails sent out by Sharma Tadepalli objecting to the DVDs available for purchase or rental from the Temple's library.  Thiagarajan, plaintiff in the defamation action, oversaw operation of the temple’s library.  Tadepalli claimed that some of the DVDs were non-religious and included X-rated Indian movies. The court held:
allowing Thiagarajan’s defamation claim to proceed unavoidably would lead a civil court into the forbidden territory of litigating “‘conformity of the members of a church to the standard of morals required of them.... Subject matter jurisdiction is foreclosed when defamation claims are bound up with ecclesiastical implications such as those present in this case.
The majority also concluded that:
Having pleaded that MTS [the Temple] should indemnify him precisely because the statements at issue “concerned  matters related to the conduct and governance of MTS and to other ecclesiastical matters,” Tadepalli cannot plausibly contend that a determination as to whether MTS should indemnify him nonetheless will avoid determination of “ecclesiastical matters.”
A concurring and dissenting opinion by Chief Justice Frost agreed that the defamation claim should be dismissed, but argued that the claim for indemnification can be decided using neutral principles of law and without resolving religious controversies.