Friday, December 18, 2020

Suit By Fired Parish Office Manager Dismissed On Ecclesiastical Abstention Grounds

In Napolitano v. St. Joseph Catholic Church, (FL App., Dec. 18, 2020), a Florida state appellate court dismissed on ecclesiastical abstention grounds a suit by a church parish's office manager. At issue was whether a new parish priest could fire the office manager after the prior priest, just before his ouster, had on behalf of the parish entered a 4-year contract with the office manager. In affirming the trial court's dismissal of the case, the court said in part:

At the heart of the dispute between Napolitano and the Church Defendants is whether Father Brown had the authority under Canon Law to obligate successor administrations of St. Joseph to retain his chosen employees. Simply put, Napolitano has requested that a secular court examine a hierarchical religious organization and determine who has the authority to speak and act on its behalf. Whether based on actual or apparent authority, Napolitano’s request would require a court to impermissibly wade into ecclesiastical polity, in violation of the First Amendment....

Whether Father Brown had the actual or apparent authority to form the employment agreement and bind St. Joseph and the Diocese, even after his removal, is a quintessentially religious controversy—one that would require judicial inquiry into internal church matters—and constitutes a subject matter of which secular courts lack jurisdiction.