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Defamation claimed barred by ecclesiastical abstention doctrine

Where plaintiff’s tort claims against the church and church elders where he was previously pastor were all connected to the church’s termination of plaintiff as pastor and his resistance to that termination, the claims were barred by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.

In Maize v. Friendship Community Church, Inc., No. E2019-00183-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 19, 2020), plaintiff was the former pastor at defendant church. After plaintiff had inappropriate communications with a female church member on Facebook, the church elders (also named as defendants) met and subsequently requested plaintiff’s resignation. Plaintiff refused and was then given a termination letter, which he “refused to abide by.” After a second termination letter was delivered to plaintiff, the church elders held another meeting, wherein “it was suggested that [the termination] had to be done through a church vote in order to be effective.” Because plaintiff was refusing to acknowledge his termination, the church sent an email to its members explaining the termination and stating that plaintiff was likely to attempt to hold church services.

Plaintiff did hold a service after he was told of his termination, during which he took up a collection that he did not give to the church. Two days after this service, the church sued plaintiff for conversion, among other claims. This suit was dismissed by the church soon after it was filed, but plaintiff subsequently filed this action alleging “libel, slander, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, civil conspiracy, false light invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.” The trial court eventually dismissed all of plaintiff’s claims, holding that some of them were barred by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Regarding the abuse of process claim, the Court of Appeals noted that to make such a claim, “ a plaintiff must show an additional abuse of process after the original processes of the court.” (internal citation omitted). Further, “no claim of abuse will be heard if process is used for its lawful purpose, even though it is accompanied with an incidental spiteful motive or awareness that the use of process will result in increased burdens and expenses to the other party.” (internal citation omitted).  Here, plaintiff’s only claim regarding the suit filed and then dismissed by defendant church was that “the Church had an ulterior and malicious motive when it filed its complaint.” Based on the Tennessee authorities cited, the Court ruled that “this alleged grievance does not give rise to a valid claim for abuse of process” and affirmed dismissal.

Moving next to plaintiff’s defamation claims, the Court explained that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine “precludes civil courts in this country from adjudicating questions of discipline, or of faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law or church polity, of the internal governance of religious organizations.” (internal citation omitted). In the context of defamation, the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine may bar a defamation claim where “the alleged defamatory remarks were made during an ecclesiastical undertaking, such as the discipline or removal of a pastor,” as “such actions may be found too close to the peculiarly religious aspects of the transactions to be segregated and treated separately—as simple civil wrongs.” (internal citation omitted). Further, the doctrine may apply to “statements made after the church’s decision [on disciplinary proceedings] if the statements or actions are merely implementation of, still part of, inextricably related to, or a consequence of the decision.” (internal citation omitted).

In this case, all the communications that plaintiff cited as defamatory “occurred in connection with [plaintiff’s] termination and in the wake of his active resistance to the church’s efforts to divest him of his pastoral authority.” Statements to the other party involved in the Facebook communications, the email to the church regarding plaintiff’s termination, and an email shared among church elders about the situation were all “inextricably linked to the termination” of plaintiff. Accordingly, the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine barred plaintiff’s defamation claims, and dismissal was affirmed.

Looking next to plaintiff’s emotional distress claims, the Court quickly ruled that while the trial court did not rely on the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, both the negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims should have been dismissed thereunder because they were “based on the alleged defamatory actions the Church and its elders took in this case, [and] it is clear that the harm claimed of is inextricably linked to the termination of [plaintiff].” Regarding the negligent infliction of emotional distress claim, the Court also agreed with the trial court that plaintiff’s “failure to show either physical injury or severe emotional injury by medical proof” merited dismissal, as he had no other surviving tort claim and such proof would therefore have been required.

Finally, the Court affirmed dismissal of plaintiff’s civil conspiracy claim. While the Court disagreed with the trial court’s assertion that there was no authority for a claim for conspiracy to defame, the Court ruled that the “conspiracy claim cannot survive in light of our determination herein that his defamation claims (as well as other tort claims) were properly dismissed,” as a civil conspiracy claim requires an “underlying predicate tort.” (internal citation omitted).

After affirming the trial court’s denial of plaintiff’s motion to amend his complaint, which was filed just three weeks before the scheduled trial date and which the trial court deemed futile, the Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the case in its entirety.

The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine does not come up often in appellate cases. If you are litigating a case where this might be an issue, especially in the context of defamation, this case is a very important read.

 

NOTE:  this opinion was released three months after oral argument.

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