Church Challenges Venue

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

The Episcopal Church is fighting back against a bombshell lawsuit from its former chief operating officer, Bishop Stacy Sauls, who claims the church slandered him and ruined his future job prospects before firing him for no stated reason last year.

Attorneys for the church filed a 24-page motion March 29 to have the case thrown out of the Circuit Court of Mobile County, Alabama. A more appropriate venue would be New York, the motion says, home of the Episcopal Church Center.

“Plaintiff’s choice of forum is an obvious act of forum shopping,” the motion says. “Justice would therefore not be served by keeping this case when there is no connection with Alabama.”

A hearing on the motion to dismiss is scheduled for June 1 in the circuit court. But even if the case is relocated, the church still stands a good chance of prevailing and averting a jury trial, legal experts told TLC.

In his 25-page complaint, Sauls alleges he was the target of a multi-year conspiracy to oust him. In December 2015, he was placed on administrative leave, along with two other senior administrators, in the wake of “charges of racism, sexism, retaliation, sexual harassment, and creation of a hostile workplace,” according to the suit. Though he was ultimately exonerated, a public statement linking Sauls with the four-month misconduct investigation was damaging, the suit says.

“The Defendants inflicted significant public damage on Bishop Sauls in releasing a statement that was inherently misleading and intentionally designed to foment gossip and innuendo,” the suit says.

Sauls has been unable to find work as a chaplain, rector, or institution president because of his damaged reputation, the suit says. Emotional distress and heart problems are among the tolls. He is suing for compensatory and punitive damages, as well as back wages, lost health benefits, and other compensation. If he were to win on all counts, his jury award could reach into the millions, experts say.

The suit names Mobile County as an appropriate venue because the church does business by agent(s) in the region and “a substantial part of the events and/or omissions giving rise to some or all of the claims herein occurred in Mobile County, Alabama.”

The bishop’s attorneys, who are based in Fairhope, Alabama, and Oxford, Mississippi, did not respond to requests for comment. The Episcopal Church switched attorneys March 30. The church is no longer using the Hand Arendall firm of Mobile and is now represented by FordHarrison, a Mobile-based firm that belongs to Ius Laboris, a global alliance of human-resources lawyers.

The choice of venue is perplexing in part because Alabama courts are known to be more sympathetic toward employers than employees, said Jamie Leonard, an Episcopal layman and professor of employment law at the University of Alabama School of Law. But other factors could also be at play.

“Sometimes Alabama juries go hog wild on damages,” Leonard said. “So, if you have a good legal claim, a jury might be very generous. That may have something to do with it.”

The case will likely be thrown out of the Alabama court, Leonard said.

In the suit, he said, “there are references to a lot of investigative work done in Alabama on the plaintiff’s behalf; however, that won’t do it,” Leonard said. To keep the case in Mobile, the court would need to find either that the church is “at home” in Alabama (headquartered there) or that enough events occurred there to justify sending witnesses from New York to testify.

Relocating the case, however, might not do much to improve the bishop’s chances. That’s because experts see him as a prime candidate for the “ministerial exception,” which became precedent in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (2012). This evolving legal principle says courts cannot resolve employment cases of clerics or lay ministers who carry out religious missions in their work.

“Clergy effectively lack employment rights that other persons have,” Leonard said. And if anyone qualifies for the ministerial exception, it’s apt to be a bishop who oversaw operations of the Episcopal Church.

“Except for the fact that it involves ecclesiastical parties, it looks like a fairly typical employment suit filed by a disgruntled worker who’s been dismissed,” Leonard said. “But the presence of ecclesiastical figures here makes it very interesting.”

At stake is the doctrine of church-state separation. Because courts cannot adjudicate theological issues, they have taken a hands-off approach to a broad swath of employment cases on the grounds that a minister’s employment is inherently a matter of theological authority, and therefore beyond a court’s jurisdiction.

“The reasons for the bishop’s dismissal here are employment-related, and it does have a theological component to it, and the courts won’t touch that,” said Myron Steeves, director of the Church Law Center of California and an attorney with a focus on nonprofit agencies.

Between the Alabama venue and the ministerial exception, the Episcopal Church has two strong arguments that could potentially derail the Sauls suit even before the discovery stage begins. That comes as welcome relief for a litigation-heavy church. After a decade of drawn-out property-related cases and eight-figure legal bills, the church now seems to have a case in which it can afford to play hardball and not settle — at least not yet.

“My suspicion is that the church is not going to be thinking seriously about settlement until they resolve the Hosanna-Tabor matter,” Steeves said. “And that can be done before any discovery is done.”

Before Sauls filed his suit, church representatives engaged him in “lengthy conversations and negotiations” that were unsuccessful in reaching a severance deal, said Neva Rae Fox, the church’s public affairs officer, via email. She declined to comment on whether the church has tried to settle the suit.

Though the church has solid arguments, experts say, the case is no slam dunk. The limits of the ministerial exception are still being explored in jurisprudence, which leaves room for surprises that could potentially work in the bishop’s favor, Leonard said.

What’s more, a court might not deem the case to be entirely about employment, Steeves said. In one scenario, a court could let the slander and libel charges proceed as separate non-employment claims, even if the ministerial exception is invoked to scuttle specifically employment-related claims.

At that point, discovery could begin, which would increase pressure on the church to settle. A trial would likely bring into the limelight many of the specific misconduct allegations that the church worked to keep secret last year.

If the case proceeds to trial, “they’re going to have to put on a defense,” Leonard said. “The question is: if there is a lot of dirty laundry here, do they feel obliged to bring it to defend the claim? Or do they suddenly try to settle up because, whatever it is, it would be either embarrassing or contrary to the mission of the church to bring it out?”

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