An Alabama judge declined June 12 to toss out a slander and libel lawsuit against the Episcopal Church by the Rt. Rev. Stacy Sauls. He ordered the parties to engage in mediation in the weeks ahead.

The order by Judge Ben Brooks of Mobile County’s 13th Judicial District appointed mediator Michael Upchurch to work with the church and Bishop Sauls, who held one of the church’s top administrative posts as chief operating officer until he was fired in April 2016.

His dismissal came in the wake of a misconduct investigation that exonerated Sauls after four months of administrative leave. Two executives on his team were fired for misconduct. His lawsuit says the church ruined his reputation and made it impossible for him to find church-related employment. He is seeking an unspecified amount in damages.

The Episcopal Church had asked the court to toss out the 25-page suit on jurisdictional grounds, arguing that the case should be tried not in Alabama but in New York, where the church is based and where Sauls worked.

But Brooks mandated a framework in which the parties will have to negotiate in Mobile.

“All parties and representatives of parties (including insurance carrier claims representatives) with full settlement authority must be personally present during the entire mediation,” the order said.

Neither church staff nor attorneys for Bishop Sauls responded immediately to TLC’s request for comment. Neva Rae Fox, the church’s officer for public affairs, said in April that the church does not comment on litigation. She noted then that church officials had “lengthy conversations and negotiations” with Sauls before the suit was filed.

Upchurch is a member of St. James Church in Fairhope, Alabama. He is one of seven partners with the Mobile firm of Frazer, Greene, Upchurch, and Baker. His biography lists extensive experience as a trial lawyer, most often representing defendants. He is a member of the National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals, a professional association of meditators and arbitrators, and he has mediated cases involving religious institutions.

Upchurch is scheduled to report the results of mediation Aug. 18 in the circuit court.

G. Jeffrey MacDonald

order for mediation, 6.12.17

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