Can a church be sued for releasing information regarding the debts of a previous minister?
That was the issue before a Tennessee state appeals court. The minister had been employed by a local Tennessee church in 1981 and 1982.
While there, he learned that his wife was contemplating divorcing him. He left the church and followed his wife to Pennsylvania, leaving behind many unpaid debts. The local church learned of the debts and reported them to the state office of the denomination.
A denominational officer repeatedly contacted the former minister and requested that the debts be paid. These efforts were unsuccessful. In 1985, the minister returned to Tennessee, began attending another church, and requested a transfer of his membership from the previous church to the church he presently was attending.
An officer of the previous church provided the new church with a listing of the minister's debts, and indicated that they remained unpaid. By the end of 1986, the minister still had not paid the bills, and he was threatened with disciplinary action by the denomination.
In 1987, he sued his denomination and former church for emotional damages that he allegedly suffered because of their publication of information regarding his debts. Such publication, the minister claimed, amounted to an "invasion of privacy."
A trial court and state appeals court both ruled in favor of the church and denomination. The appeals court acknowledged that "public disclosure of private facts" has been deemed by many states to constitute an "invasion of privacy." However, the court concluded that no "invasion of privacy" existed in this case since any such claim was barred by the state's statute of limitations (which required such lawsuits to be filed within one year of the date of the alleged injury).
The court observed that the disclosure of the minister's debts occurred more than one year before the filing of the lawsuit, and therefore the lawsuit was barred by the statute of limitations. The court was not required to determine whether or not the actions of the church and denomination amounted to an invasion of privacy.
This case is significant for two reasons. First, it indicates that churches face potential legal liability for publishing information regarding personal debts. It is important to emphasize that several courts have ruled that the public disclosure of personal debts does amount to an invasion of privacy.
Second, it illustrates the potential risks that a church faces in responding to reference requests. What can a church do to reduce this risk? It can refuse to respond to reference requests without first receiving a "release" form signed by the applicant (consenting to the reference, releasing the church from liability for statements made in good faith, and giving the applicant the option of waiving the right to see the reference). The church should also be careful to transmit any information directly to the person requesting the reference, and the letter (and envelope) should be labelled "personal and confidential."
The recipient should be instructed not to use the letter for any other purpose, and not to disclose its contents to anyone else. Finally, share no information that cannot be substantiated. Brooks v. Collinwood Church of God (Tenn. App. unpublished opinion 1989).