Sunday, July 15, 2012

Wisconsin High Court In Fragmented Decision Dismisses Fired Church Employee's Breach of Contract Claim

DeBruin v. St. Patrick Congregation, (WI Sup. Ct., July 12, 2012), is a suit by a Catholic Church's former Director of Faith Formation against the parish claiming that she was fired from her position in breach of her contract with the congregation. The case was certified by the state court of appeals to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.  The case generated 4 separate opinions, with 5 of the 7 Supreme Court justices agreeing with the trial court that plaintiff's suit should be dismissed.  Justice Roggensack, in an opinion joined by 2 other justices, held that permitting the claim to proceed would unconstitutionally interfere with the Church's choice of ministerial employees.

Justice Crooks and Justice Prosser each wrote a concurring opinion taking the position that the court should decide the case on contract, rather than constitutional, grounds (though Justice Prosser discussed the constitutional issues at some length). Justice Crooks held that no contract exists because the contract provision plaintiff sought to enforce amounted to an illusory promise.  Plaintiff could be terminated only for good an sufficient cause, but the determination of what is sufficient cause was left by the contract solely to the employer's determination.  Justice Prosser concluded that a contract exists, but that the Church "reserved its rights to terminate its ministerial employees on grounds of 'dissatisfaction,' and it exercised those rights." Second-guessing the parish's decision would involve the court in an internal parish conflict and would be inconsistent "with any reasonable view of religious liberty."

Finally, Justice Bradley (joined by Chief Justice Abrahamson) dissented, holding that the common law contract claims at issue do not implicate free exercise concerns, and that it premature on the record before the court to determine whether the claims would foster excessive state entanglement with religion.  Among the issues on which the various justices disagree is the extent to which the the U.S. Supreme Court's 2012 Hosanna-Tabor decision on the ministerial exception doctrine (see prior posting) should be seen as barring common law breach of contract suits by ministerial employees.