Saturday, August 14, 2021

Mississippi Supreme Court Rejects Claims By Pastor's Former Wife Against His Church On Unusual Facts

In Woodard v. Miller, (MS Sup. Ct., Aug. 12, 2021), the Mississippi Supreme Court applied the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine in an unusual context.  Plaintiff Kim Miller married Andrew Johnson when he was a seminary student studying to be a United Methodist Church minister. Church officials encouraged Miller to give up her higher education plans to serve as a minister's wife, and told her that the church would provide for her needs. After more than 20 years of marriage, Miller filed for divorce. She took this step after Johnson confessed to her that he was gay, had contracted HIV from an extramarital affair, and had infected Miller.

Miller sued her ex-husband, the United Methodist Church Conference and a fellow-pastor asserting a variety of claims. She asserted that "had the conference and the fellow minister followed United Methodist policy and procedure, they would have discovered Johnson’s behavior and remedied it or warned Miller before she contracted HIV."

The court dismissed plaintiff's claims against the church, saying in part:

[U]nder the First Amendment, for Miller’s claim to proceed against MUMC, the claimed assumed duty cannot be religious or ecclesiastical in nature.... And we are hard-pressed to see how Miller’s claim would hold up if it were against a non-religious employer. Though Miller personally interpreted MUMC’s promise to provide for her and her family if she gave up her own career goals as both an assurance of sufficient financial remuneration and a guarantee against her husband committing adultery, such an interpretation would be considered wholly unreasonable if the promise was being made by, say, a law firm, a hospital, or a technology company. In other words, Miller interpreted the assurances of MUMC ministers as including guaranteeing the success of her marriage and family life precisely because her fianc√© was going into church ministry. Thus, her claim fails because the religious nature of his employer cannot be the basis for recognizing a legal duty....

The court dismissed Miller's claim against the fellow-pastor because: "a fiduciary duty cannot arise merely from a minister-church member relationship."

Finally, the court, over the dissent of two judges allowed plaintiff to move ahead on her claims against her former husband, rejecting his defense that the claims against him were released as part of the divorce settlement. The majority held that Johnson had waived this defense.