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Duel defamation duels: abstention and attorney

By

 “And thus he [was] … defamed by every charlatan.”

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam (1849)

The clash between the First Amendment right of freedom of expression and the commonlaw right to protect one’s reputation and seek vindication for damage is age old, highlighted by the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court more than 50 years ago in the famous case New York Times v. Sullivan376 U.S.254(1964), which constitutionalized defamation law in many respects.

But the tension between the two tenets is compounded when a third feature is added to the mix: religious freedom. Those three precepts–freedom of expression, vindication of reputation, and religious liberty–coalesced early last month in a decision by the Minnesota Supreme Court involving a defamation claim brought against a parishioner arising out of disciplinary proceedings in a church in Worthington in Pfeil v. St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, 2016 Minn. App. LEXIS 170 (Minn. Apr. 6, 2016) (unpublished).

But rather than addressing the merits, the court chose to pass over the defamation claim, deeming the church to be immune from liability under the religious freedom provisions of the First Amendment. Fittingly, the decision was handed down a couple of weeks before the beginning of the eight-day Jewish holiday of Passover. It commemorates the flight from Egypt by the Israelites, led by Moses on their 40-year trek through the desert.

In the Pfeil case, the Supreme Court took flight from resolving the defamation issues raised by the parishioner ousted by the church.

Excommunication exodus

Unlike the Jews, who desired their exodus from enslavement in Egypt, the plaintiff in the Pfeil case was involuntarily expelled. The claimant and her husband, who later died, were thrown out of their church.

The case had several unusual features. The lawsuit involved a case within a case. The married couple were excommunicated because they engaged in “slander and gossip” against the leadership of the ministry of the congregation. They also were alleged to have committed various types of misbehavior, including “behavior unbecoming of a Christian, having led other people into sin, and refusing to follow the commands and teaching of God’s word,” among other perceived perfidy. The case also yielded an unusual 3-2 vote by the justices, with two newly seated ones not participating. The ruling also features an unusual combination of dissenters: Justice David Lillehaug, usually a member of the court’s liberal wing, with Chief Justice Lori Gildea, a conservative anchor of the tribunal.

The ousted wife sued, asserting a defamation claims against the church and various officials who submitted material to a congregational meeting detailing those charges. The Nobles County District Court dismissed the lawsuit on grounds that the First Amendment barred the claim under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, which generally proscribes judicial inquiry into religious matters. The Court of Appeals affirmed, 2015 Minn. App. LEXIS 39 (Minn. Jan. 12, 2015) (unpublished). The Supreme Court granted review in order to “clarify” Minnesota jurisprudence with respect to “the intersection of the First Amendment and civil claims against religious institutions.”

‘Abstention’ and ‘autonomy’

The Supreme Court narrowly affirmed, grounding its decision on the “abstention doctrine,” relied upon by the lower courts. The principle was traced to a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court concerning disputes over church property arising out of schisms within congregations. Writing for the one-vote majority, Judge G. Barry Anderson, noted that the “autonomy” principle, which frees a religious institution from judicial inquiry due to First Amendment concerns, “is not boundless.” If courts can use neutral principles of law to resolve disputes concerning religious institutions and their parishioners, judicial inquiry may proceed, as exemplified by a prior decision upholding of a negligent counseling claim brought against a pastor by an ex-parishioner in Odenthal v. Minnesota Conference of Seventh Day Adventists, 649 N.W2d. 426 (Minn. 2002).

Distilling the various decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and its Minnesota counterpart, Justice Anderson articulated several rules of guidance: that courts cannot “overturn the decisions” of religious bodies concerning clearly ecclesiastical concerns;” courts may not adjudicate cases that deal with doctrinal conflicts; but courts may resolve disputes if they can do so “relying exclusively on neutral principles of law.”

Application of these principles led to the conclusion that “adjudication of the [defamation] claims [are] barred by the First Amendment.” The church correctly argued that adjudicating a defamation claim arising out of statements made during a church disciplinary proceeding would “unduly entangle the court with religion” was deemed to have merit. While some of the challenged statements were “secular in nature,” a number of them are clearly religious in nature, making it difficult to differentiate between secular and religious statements in the context of a church disciplinary proceeding. Indeed, trying to differentiate the statements that are secular and those that are religious would lead to “excessive entanglement with religion,” which is prohibited under the First Amendment.

The majority decision recognized that granting immunity to religious organizations for defamation claims arising in disciplinary proceedings will “necessarily cause some otherwise meritorious claims to go uncompensated,” a proposal undermining the value and importance of societal interest in allowing redress for defamation. But that concern paled in comparison to the First Amendment rights of religious organizations to engage in “largely religious doctrinal” matters, especially when the challenged statements are “only disseminated … to members of the congregation.” Because the limited distribution of the offensive statements within the church congregation, and not to outsiders, the claims against the church and its religious leadership were “properly dismissed.”

The dissent authored by Justice Lillehaug, joined by Chief Justice Gildea, criticized the creation of “an absolute privilege to defame,” which left the damaged individuals “no remedy whatsoever in Minnesota’s courts.” The dissenters felt that “neutral principles of state defamation law” were available to adjudicate the claims without excessive entanglement with religion. At a minimum, the dissenters felt that adjudication of the accusation that the parishioners stole money from the church could be adjudicated without infringing on any constitutionally protected beliefs. The dissents also feared that by “insulating religious actors from defamation claims,” the majority decision would lead to minimizing liability or ecclesiastical institutions and their other torts as well.

Plaintiffs prevail

But plaintiffs prevailed a few days after Pfeil in Knoernschild v. Halverson, 2016 Minn. App. LEXIS 340 (Minn. App. April 11, 2016)(unpublished), a case that also had some unusual features. The Hennepin County District Court granted summary judgment to the claimants, an officer of a townhouse association board of directors and its attorney, a rarity in defamation litigation. The issues on appeal also were peculiar; the brevity of the time allowed by the trial judge for oral argument and the preclusion of the defense of truth by a pro se disgruntled homeowner who made various communications accusing the facility and its counsel of improprieties, including subornation of perjury.

The Court of Appeals found both arguments unpersuasive. The 15-minutes allotted to each party at the hearing was not an abuse of direction because the defendant was able, through his attorney at the time, to submit a 41-page legal memorandum, and the record reflected that the trial judge “carefully considered” the evidence submitted. Further, there was no showing that “any preponderance resulted from the [truncated] time limit.

The refusal to permit submission of evidence showing truth also was proper because information was not produced in discovery. The defense failed to identify the “factual basis” for the truth defense in discovery, which warranted the preclusion of submission of “truth” evidence after discovery was closed.

Factional fight

The Pfeil decision tracks a ruling of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals around this time last year involving a fight between two factions over control of a religious congregation in Hutterville Hutterian Brethren v. Sveen, 776 F.3d 547 (8th Cir. 2015).

In that case, one of the feuding groups sued a number of lawyers in a law firm for conspiring with the other faction to improperly create a schism and put that competing segment in control of the organization. The 8th Circuit, hearing the case after it was dismissed by the South Dakota Supreme Court, found a “crucial defect” in the proceedings, the necessity to inquire into “religious matters” precluded by First Amendment jurisprudence.

As in the Pfeil case, the court chose to abstain from deciding the controversy in order to steer clear of constitutionally protected religious concerns.

These cases show the tendency of courts not to pass upon cases that involve highly charged religious issues. When faced with those disputes, as exemplified by the Pfeil case, courts will choose to pass over, rather than pass on, the lawsuits.

PERSPECTIVES POINTERS

Other recent ‘religious’ cases

  • Wallace v. ConAgra Foods, (2014): Challenge to “kosher” food labeling dismissed by 8th Circuit on standing due to lack of standing.
  • Survivor’s Network v. Joyce, (2015): 8th Circuit holds statute prohibiting disturbing church worship by “rude” behavior unconstitutional.
  • Whitefish Area Property Owners v. Minnesota-Iowa Baptist Conference, (2015): Minnesota Court of Appeals upholds county board approval of conditional use permit for religious campground in Crow Wing County.

*Originally published in Minnesota Lawyer