Friday, May 28, 2021

Church's Suit Against Bank Dismissed On Ecclesiastical Abstention Grounds

In Eglise Baptiste Bethanie De Ft. Lauderdale, Inc. v. Bank of America, N.A., (FL App., May 26, 2021), a Florida state appellate court, in a 2-1 decision, affirmed the dismissal of a suit by a Baptist church against a bank for negligently transferring control of the church's bank accounts to the widow of the deceased pastor. The court said in part:

Here, although the Church’s negligence claims against the Banks involve a question of control over bank accounts, in order to resolve those claims the court would necessarily have to decide which faction within the Church controls the bank accounts. The only way for the court to make this determination is for it to consider the Church’s internal governance structure. “[Q]uestions of church governance are manifestly ecclesiastical.” Id. Accordingly, the trial court did not err in dismissing the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction based on the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.

Judge Winter dissented, saying in part:

Appellants argued that the case could be decided on neutral legal principles, and to determine otherwise goes beyond the four corners of the complaint. At best, therefore, dismissal was premature. The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applies to church property disputes in hierarchical religious organizations. A different rule applies to churches which are congregational organizations. Based upon the correct rule, dismissal was error.