Denominations’ Liability for Ministers’ Sexual Misconduct

A Minnesota court ruled that a denomination could be sued.

Church Law and Tax 1991-03-01 Recent Developments

Denominations – Legal Liability

A Minnesota state appeals court ruled that a religious denomination incorporated in Illinois could be sued in Minnesota for the alleged sexual misconduct of one of its ministers. The Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) is a body of evangelical churches, administratively organized into regional conferences. The ECC bylaws specify that its “board of ministry” exercises “general supervision over Covenant ministers, including ordination, license, discipline, and the maintenance of high ministerial standards.” The ECC is responsible for investigating claims of misconduct lodged against its ministers, and for administering such discipline as it deems appropriate. Such discipline may include counseling, training, temporary removal from ministry, or permanent dismissal from the ministry. A minister who had served an ECC church in Minnesota for 25 years was accused of sexually molesting boys in the church. This information was shared with the superintendent of the Northwest Conference of the ECC, who relayed it directly to the ECC. The ECC suspended the minister pending the outcome of an investigation into the charges. While the investigation was in process, the minister tendered his resignation to the ECC. Shortly thereafter, the parents of six boys filed lawsuits in a Minnesota state court against the minister and the ECC. The lawsuits alleged that the boys had been sexually molested by the minister, and that their injuries had been caused by ECC’s negligent supervision of the minister. The ECC asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit against it on the ground that a Minnesota court had no “personal jurisdiction” over an Illinois corporation. The trial court rejected the ECC’s request, and the ECC immediately appealed this decision to a state appeals court. The appeals court acknowledged that the United States Constitution protects a corporation from being sued unless the court has personal jurisdiction over it. This means that an organization that is incorporated and operated in one state cannot be sued in another state unless it has sufficient contacts with the other state so that compelling it to defend itself there would not “offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.” But how many “contacts” must a corporation have in another state to subject it to the jurisdiction of that state’s courts? The United States Supreme Court recently observed that the out-of-state corporation must have “purposefully directed its activities at residents” of the other state. The Minnesota appeals court concluded that “a local church’s membership in a national religious organization does not, by itself, automatically establish sufficient minimum contacts by the national organization to support jurisdiction in the local church’s home forum. However, the court observed that this case involved much more than mere passive membership by local churches in a national religious organization: “Rules and regulations governing the legal relationship between ECC and [local churches] establish that ECC assumed responsibility for the discipline of … ministers. ECC contemplated that in the event a minister … was charged with sexual abuse, it would become involved in the subsequent investigation and would regulate the minister’s privilege to carry out pastoral duties.” The court noted that after the ECC was apprised of the Minnesota minister’s misconduct, it “was in complete charge of the ensuing investigation and disciplinary action.” These acts, plus meetings the ECC had with the minister, convinced the court that the ECC had sufficient contacts with Minnesota to subject it to the jurisdiction of Minnesota courts. It concluded that “in our view, its contacts with Minnesota were sufficiently significant so that ECC had fair warning that it would be made subject to Minnesota jurisdiction for litigation arising out of its alleged failure to adequately investigate and discipline a minister.” This significant case now proceeds to trial. Developments will be reported in future editions of this newsletter. Olson v. Magnuson, 457 N.W.2d 394 (Minn. App. 1990).

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