Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine Does Not Require Dismissal of Breach of Contract Claim

In Shannon v. Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church U.S., (TX App., July 21,2015), a Texas state appeals court held that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is not applicable to a claim by former Church Elementary Ministries Director Jessica Shannon that the Church breached a confidential separation agreement she had signed. The agreement involved payment to her of $25,000 to settle her claim that she had been dismissed for making sexual harassment allegations against a Church elder. As part of the agreement, the Church and Shannon each agreed not to "disparage" the other. After Shannon was hired by the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary as a development officer, it called the Church for references and was told by officials that the Church would not rehire Shannon and that she would not be able to raise funds anywhere in Houston. This led the Seminary to fire Shannon on the grounds that she had misrepresented the circumstances surrounding her departure from the Church.

Shannon sued the Church, claiming among other things that it violated the non-disparagement provision. The court held in part:
We may interpret a contract in a civil law controversy in purely secular terms when doing so does not require us to rely on religious precepts or resolve a religious controversy.... Making the determination of whether the Church disparaged Shannon merely involves interpreting the contract as a matter of law and applying the facts as found by the fact finder. Moreover, under these circumstances, we are not required to intervene in the hiring, firing, discipline, or administration of the Church’s clergy, address the Church’s standards of morality, or address any other matters traditionally held to involve religious doctrine.... We conclude that this lawsuit, revolving around the Church’s purported disparagement of Shannon in violation of the Agreement, is a civil law controversy in which Church officials happen to be involved.... Accordingly, the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine does not apply.
The court also concluded that the trial court had erred in invoking several other grounds for dismissing Shannon's claims. It affirmed only the trial court's dismissal of Shannon's intentional infliction of emotional distress claim.

UPDATE: On Sept. 1, 2015, the court denied a motion for rehearing and filed a Substitute Opinion: 2015 Tex. App. LEXIS 9312.