PETITION DENIED. NO OPINION.
STUART, MURDOCK, SHAW, MAIN, WISE, and BRYAN, JJ., concur.
PARKER, J., dissents.
MOORE, C.J., recuses himself.
PARKER, Justice, (dissenting).
I respectfully dissent from this Court's decision to deny the petition for a writ of mandamus filed by the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church ("the NAC"); the Central District, North Alabama Annual Conference, United Methodist Church, Inc. ("the District"); and Bobby Alford, district superintendent of the District (hereinafter sometimes referred to collectively as "the petitioners"). The petitioners have demonstrated that the First Amendment protections described in Ex parte Bole, 103 So.3d 40 (Ala.2012), apply to the present case. Consequently, the petitioners have demonstrated that the Jefferson Circuit Court ("the circuit court") lacks subject-matter jurisdiction to hear this case.
On January 10, 2013, the Reverend Terry Lee Greer, senior minister at Gardendale-Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church, shot and killed his wife, Lisa Greer, and shot and wounded his daughter, Suzanna Greer. Subsequently, Suzanna Greer, individually, and Gay Blackburn Maloney, the executrix of Lisa Greer's estate (hereinafter referred to collectively as "the plaintiffs"), filed a complaint against the petitioners.
In their complaint, the plaintiffs alleged negligent hiring, supervision, and retention. The plaintiffs' claims derive, in part, from the following facts:
"31. On or about September 28, 2012, an anonymous person reported to the [petitioners] that [Reverend Greer] was plagiarizing his sermons at Gardendale-Mt. Vernon.
"32. From that point on, [the petitioners] commenced a much more intensive investigation that culminated with Alford's October 10, 2012, recommendation that [Reverend Greer] undergo ... psychological testing and six (6) months of mental health counseling.
"33. On October 17, 2012 ..., Alford and [two] other District Superintendents met with [Reverend Greer] to confront him about the accusations of plagiarism and ... financial improprieties.
"34. On October 19, 2012 ..., Alford informed the executive committee of [the] NAC (called `the Cabinet') about his recommendations, and urged the approval of those recommendations into an action plan. On behalf of [the] NAC, the Cabinet approved ... Alford's recommendations, including the requirement for psychological testing and six (6) months of mental health counseling.
"35. The Cabinet also approved a letter of reprimand for [Reverend Greer], contingent on Greer meeting certain requirements set by the Cabinet.
"36. At approximately the same time, [the petitioners] became aware that [Reverend Greer] was having memory problems.
". . . .
"39. Despite the fact that ... Alford's office was at [the] NAC's headquarters on the campus of Birmingham Southern College, and was only a few minutes away from [Reverend Greer's] home at the parsonage ..., Defendant Alford never met with [Reverend Greer] about the Cabinet's decision about Greer's discipline for the plagiarism and the financial improprieties.
"40. [The petitioners] never notified Gardendale-Mt. Vernon or the plaintiffs about the decisions that resulted from the Cabinet meeting of October 19, 2012.
"41. Defendant Alford attended several meetings at ... Gardendale-Mt. Vernon in the meantime, which was only approximately 5 minutes away from [Reverend Greer's] home at the parsonage.
"42. Defendant Alford continued to let [Reverend Greer] remain in suspense about the outcome of the Cabinet's decision despite the fact that Alford knew or should have known about [Reverend Greer's] declining mental health.
"43. On or about the evening of January 9, 2013, [Reverend Greer] sent an email to ... Alford which begged for `help' with his mental situation, which confessed that [Reverend Greer] had seen a psychiatrist the previous month related to his mental situation, and which pleaded for assistance.
"44. Defendant Alford responded the following morning, January 10, 201, with an email reply which basically chastised [Reverend Greer].
"45. The shootings occurred a few hours later the same day."
In response to the plaintiffs' complaint, the petitioners filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), Ala. R. Civ. P., alleging that the circuit court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction. The petitioners alleged that
"[e]ach of [p]laintiffs' claims against [them] arises from, relates to, and concerns (1) the [NAC's] investigation of complaints against [Reverend Greer] about his performance of duties as a minister, (2) Alford's involvement in that investigation, (3) information gathered in that investigation, (4) the findings of that investigation, (5) information allegedly known to Alford, the District, and the [NAC] as a result of that investigation, and (6) its attempts to impose discipline upon [Reverend Greer] as a result of its investigative findings and the governing ecclesiastical law."
The circuit court denied the petitioners' motion to dismiss, and the petitioners filed the present petition for a writ of mandamus, which requests that this Court direct the circuit court to grant the petitioners' motion to dismiss. The petitioners argue that this Court's decision in Ex parte Bole controls the present case. Therefore, the petitioners argue, the circuit court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over the claims in the plaintiffs' complaint. I agree.
"Courts are constrained by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution from `intrud[ing] into a religious organization's determination of ... ecclesiastical matters such as theological doctrine, church discipline, or the conformity of members to standards of faith and morality.'" Lott v. Eastern Shore Christian Ctr., 908 So.2d 922, 928 (Ala.2005) (quoting Singh v. Singh, 114 Cal.App.4th 1264, 1275, 9 Cal.Rptr.3d 4, 12 (2004)). Specifically, the First Amendment deprives a court of subject-matter jurisdiction over tort claims that are intertwined with ecclesiastical investigations or proceedings involving the employment or discipline of clergy. Ex parte Bole, supra.
In Ex parte Bole, the plaintiff was a pastor emeritus of a church and the defendant was a lay member of the church. 103 So.3d at 42. After the lay member made statements to the church's hierarchy ("the Conference") concerning the pastor, the Conference initiated an investigation that ultimately led to the pastor being asked to refrain from further activities with the church. 103 So.3d at 48. The pastor sued the lay member, alleging defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. 103 So.3d at 42. After the lay member's motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction was denied, the lay member filed a petition for a writ of mandamus with this Court.
This Court granted the lay member's petition, holding that the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the pastor's claims. 103 So.3d at 72. We stated:
"It is clear that [the pastor's] claims were intertwined with the underlying investigation by the Conference, with the resolution, and with the Conference's ultimate decision to remove [the pastor and his son, a senior member]. Any attempt to adjudicate [the pastor's] claim would require an impermissible inquiry into the Conference's investigation of the complaints against [the pastor and his son], into the results of the investigation conducted by the Conference, into the factual findings that formed the basis for the resolution, and into the Conference's decision to remove [the pastor and his son] from [the church]. ... For these reasons, the trial court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction over [the pastor's] claims against [the lay member] by virtue of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution."
103 So.3d at 72 (emphasis added).1
In the present case, the plaintiffs' negligent hiring, supervision, and retention claims are intertwined with the petitioners' investigations and decisions concerning Reverend Greer's employment and discipline. As set out above, the basis for the plaintiffs' claims derives, in part, from the following: 1) Alford's recommendation to the NAC concerning Reverend Greer after it was alleged that Reverend Greer was plagiarizing sermons; 2) the meeting of Alford and two others with Reverend Greer to confront Reverend Greer about the accusations of plagiarism; 3) the decision of the executive committee of the NAC ("the Cabinet") that Reverend Greer should undergo psychological testing; 4) the Cabinet's approval of a letter of reprimand, contingent on Reverend Greer's meeting certain requirements set by the Cabinet; and 5) Alford's response to Reverend Greer's January 9, 2013, e-mail. Thus, as in Ex parte Bole, the plaintiffs' claims would require an inquiry into the investigation of Reverend Greer, into the results of that investigation, into the factual findings that formed the basis of the petitioners' decision regarding Reverend Greer, and, ultimately, into the petitioners' decision to retain Reverend Greer in his capacity as a minister. Under Ex parte Bole, the circuit court is without subject-matter jurisdiction to hear those tort claims.2
I note that the plaintiffs argue that Ex parte Bole is distinguishable from the present case. Specifically, the plaintiffs argue, in part, that Ex parte Bole is distinguishable because they filed their tort claims as third parties who are completely outside the purview and ecclesiastical supervision and jurisdiction of the church. This distinction is insignificant.
This Court's decision in Ex parte Bole holds that a circuit court does not have jurisdiction over certain types of tort claims, specifically, those tort claims that are intertwined with ecclesiastical investigations or proceedings involving the employment or discipline of clergy. As demonstrated above, the plaintiffs' tort claims are intertwined with ecclesiastical investigations and proceedings involving the employment and discipline of Reverend Greer. Therefore, the plaintiffs' tort claims would trigger the same type of impermissible investigation prohibited by Ex parte Bole, regardless of the plaintiffs' third-party status.
Because the petitioners have demonstrated that the First Amendment protections set out in Ex parte Bole are applicable to this case, I would grant the relief requested in the petition for the writ of mandamus. Accordingly, I respectfully dissent.