December 11, 2016

Bresky Law Obtains Dismissal of Lawsuit Against Church and Pastor

Jackson v. The S Avenue Church of Christ of Riviera Beach, Inc., and Jonathan B. Young, Case No. 2015-CA-005206 (Fla. 15th Jud. Cir. Nov. 22, 2016)

Our firm recently obtained dismissal of a lawsuit against a church and its pastor, that was brought by a group of disgruntled former church members. The church terminated the memberships of the group members, who were holding unsanctioned meetings to discuss church business without the knowledge or presence of the church’s leadership, including the pastor. The group claimed that it was concerned with alleged financial irregularities in the church’s financial accounting and reporting. The church maintained that the group was actually engaged in a calculated campaign of harassment, intimidation, and threats directed against the pastor.

The former members eventually sued the church and its pastor for declaratory relief seeking a declaration that the termination of their memberships in the church was void, and injunctive relief to compel the church to provide them financial information. The church and its pastor sought dismissal of the suit. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss.

We represented the church and its pastor in a writ of prohibition proceeding in the Fourth DCA. We filed a Petition for Writ of Prohibition arguing that the trial court lacked jurisdiction over the dispute based upon the doctrine of ecclesiastical abstention. The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine generally precludes civil courts from inquiring into ecclesiastical matters. We provided the trial court a copy of our Petition as required by Fla. R. App. P. Rule 9.100(e).

After we filed the Petition, the trial court vacated its order denying the Defendants’ motion to dismiss, and dismissed the count of the Plaintiffs’ Compliant that sought to declare void the termination of their memberships in the church. The trial court agreed with our argument that court adjudication of that count would require excessive entanglement in church policies, doctrines, and beliefs, and so was prohibited by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. However, the trial court found that the two counts seeking financial information did not require excessive entanglement, and reaffirmed its denial of the motion to dismiss as to those counts.

We informed the Fourth DCA of the trial court’s ruling, and the Fourth DCA ordered us to amend our Petition. We amended our Petition and maintained that ecclesiastical abstention also barred the remaining counts of the complaint and that the Plaintiffs lacked standing as former members. We stressed that the trial court’s dismissal of the Plaintiffs’ count seeking to void the termination of their memberships prevented Plaintiffs from obtaining relief on the counts seeking financial information because the statute upon which Plaintiffs relied for those counts applied only to inspection of corporate records by members. § 617.1602, Fla. Stat. (2016). We again provided the trial court a copy of our Petition as required by rule.

The trial court then entered another order, dismissing the remaining counts of the complaint that sought to compel the church to provide financial information. The trial court found dismissal of the remaining counts appropriate because the remaining counts “seek redress of rights that appear inherently tied with the resolution of” the count regarding termination of memberships that the court had already dismissed. The dismissal was without prejudice, as the trial court allowed the Plaintiffs twenty days to file an amended complaint. However, the favorable ruling for our client on the merits may indicate that the trial court might not adjudicate the dispute brought by the Plaintiffs.