Invasion of Privacy Lawsuit

The dangers of communicating potentially damaging information about employees.

Key point 2-04.1. Most courts have concluded that they are barred by the First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion from resolving challenges by dismissed clergy to the legal validity of their dismissals.

Key point 4-04. Many states recognize "invasion of privacy" as a basis for liability. Invasion of privacy may consist of any one or more of the following: (1) public disclosure of private facts; (2) use of another person's name or likeness; (3) placing someone in a "false light" in the public eye; or (4) intruding upon another's seclusion.

An Illinois court ruled that it was not barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a pastor's "invasion of privacy" lawsuit against a church that had sent out a letter containing information that damaged his reputation and led to his unemployment as a minister.

A pastor (the "plaintiff") was ordained by a local church (Church A) in 1989. A few years later he became pastor of Church B. He thereafter resigned this position and became senior pastor of Church C, a nondenominational church. While serving as pastor of Church C, he received a letter from the board of Church A requesting that he respond to "disturbing reports" they received about his conduct and informing him that if he did not respond they would rescind his ordination. The letter listed six charges against him, including the following:

  • You have had an improper relationship with a divorced single woman, violating the biblical teaching that an elder be above reproach.
  • Your decision to file a divorce petition against your wife violates the Biblical admonition that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church.
  • Your misuse of alcohol violates the biblical admonition that an elder be temperate, self-controlled.
  • Your misuse of your personal funds as well as the deceitful means used to obtain the [Church C] Bank account violates biblical admonition that an elder should not be a lover of money.

The plaintiff called a member of the board at Church A and informed him that the allegations had been investigated by Church C and determined to be false. He further informed the board member that Church A no longer had authority over him because he had resigned his membership and his ministry with Church A many years before. In response, Church A sent the plaintiff a second letter requesting him to appear before the church board on a specified date to respond to the charges set forth in their earlier letter. This later letter also informed him that if he did not appear his ordination would be revoked.

The plaintiff did not appear before the board, and he received a letter a short time later informing him that his ordination had been revoked. Copies of the letter were sent to some of the board members of Church C. The letter also stated:

Effective immediately, in light of our decision to revoke your licensing and ordination, we now request the following: (1) That you no longer function in the role as minister. (2) That you no longer accept the title 'Reverend' or 'Pastor' or any other such title that would imply that you have credentials for spiritual leadership and ministry. (3) That you inform the leadership and membership of [Church C] of our action …. We will continue to pray for you asking that God will graciously change your heart so that you may be restored to your wife and those whose trust you have betrayed.

The plaintiff sued Church A, and its pastor and a board member, for "invading his privacy" by sending false and misleading letters stating that he could no longer act as a minister and could no longer accept the title of "Reverend," "Pastor," or any other title that would imply that he had credentials for spiritual leadership and ministry.

The lawsuit claimed that, as a result of Church A's second letter, more than 200 people withdrew their membership and attendance from Church C under the belief that he no longer could be a minister, and that the church no longer could pay his salary or conduct services because of the diminished membership. The complaint further alleged that the plaintiff could not obtain employment elsewhere as a minister because the letters were disseminated and discussed widely in the evangelical protestant Christian community.

The trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the basis of the "ecclesiastical abstention" doctrine which generally bars the civil courts from resolving internal church disputes. The plaintiff appealed. Church A made several arguments on appeal, which are summarized below along with the court's response.

First Amendment

Church A insisted that its letters were based upon its biblical authority over the ordination that it bestowed upon the plaintiff and that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits a state court from examining the religious tenets underlying its authority. The court disagreed:

We determine that we do not need to inquire into or interpret religious matters to decide whether the [second] letter was an invasion of privacy. We are not required to look at religious doctrine or biblical underpinnings of [Church A's] right to revoke an ordination to determine whether defendants' conduct invaded [plaintiff's] privacy by publishing false information …. The harm alleged in the complaint resulted from the alleged conduct of defendants in placing [plaintiff] in a false light when revoking that ordination …. We may review defendants' conduct in carrying out the revocation …. Deciding whether defendants published a letter placing [plaintiff] in a false light, by appearing to revoke [plaintiff's] ability to be a minister and pastor … does not require extensive inquiry into religious law and polity.

Invasion of privacy

Church A claimed that even if the plaintiff's claims were not barred by the First Amendment, he could not prove an invasion of privacy and therefore his lawsuit had to be dismissed. The court noted that there are four kinds of invasion of privacy, and that the one the plaintiff was alleging was "publicity placing another person in a false light."

The court noted that to state a case for the "false light" invasion of privacy, a plaintiff must allege that: (1) the defendant's actions placed the plaintiff in a false light before the public; (2) the false light would be highly offensive to a reasonable person; and (3) the defendant acted with actual malice (that is, with knowledge that the statements were false or with reckless disregard for whether the statements were true or false). The plaintiff claimed that the second letter sent out by Church A was false and misleading as it stated that he no longer could be a minister and could no longer be the pastor of Church C.

Church A insisted that the invasion of privacy claim failed because the letters only expressed "religious opinions" that could not be proven "false" and therefore could not support a false light invasion of privacy claim. The court disagreed, noting that all of the accusations contained in the letters were stated as fact, not opinion. The letter stated, "You have had an improper relationship with a divorced single woman," "Your decision to file a divorce petition against your wife," "Your misuse of alcohol," and "Your misuse of personal funds." The court noted that some of these "factual allegations" were falsehoods, such as that the plaintiff filed a divorce petition against his wife, and the other allegations were stated without any investigation, such as that plaintiff misused alcohol and personal funds.

The court also rejected Church A's argument that there could be no invasion of privacy since it did not act maliciously:

For a finding of malice, the jury needed to find that the statements were made with knowledge that they were false or with reckless disregard for whether they were true or false. Here [Church A] testified that it did not investigate the charges in the letters; did not check the public record regarding the circumstances surrounding plaintiff's dissolution proceedings; and did not question those who accused plaintiff of the behaviors stated in the letters …. Thus, we determine that the jury could have found that defendant acted with actual malice.

What this means for churches

Many states recognize "false light" invasion of privacy. This case is instructive because it represents one of the only cases to apply this basis of liability to a church. While the court's analysis of "false light" invasion of privacy is helpful, its conclusion that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine did not apply is problematic. Most courts have concluded that the First Amendment bars them from resolving employment disputes between ministers and churches, and this rule has often been extended to collateral forms of liability, such as defamation and violation of civil or contract rights. It is likely that courts in many other jurisdictions would have dismissed the plaintiff's invasion of privacy claim.

There is one additional point that should be noted. The plaintiff's attorney did not sue Church A for "interference with contract." This is surprising, since this would have been a much more likely basis of liability than invasion of privacy. In order to establish an action for intentional interference with contract, a plaintiff must prove: (1) the existence of a valid, enforceable contract between the plaintiff and a third party; (2) defendant's knowledge of that contract; (3) defendant's intentional and unjustified inducement of the third party to breach the contract; (4) a subsequent breach by the third party resulting from defendant's wrongful conduct; and (5) damages suffered by the plaintiff as a result of the breach.

Interference with contract may occur when someone shares information with an employer about a current employee that leads to the employee's termination. This is very different from pre-employment references, which cannot "interfere" with an employment contract since none exists. Consider the following example. A Presbyterian minister left a pastoral position in Alaska and accepted a call as minister of a church in Tennessee. When he presented himself to the church to begin his duties, he was informed by church officials that, because of derogatory information the church had received from a denominational official in Alaska, the church would not hire him. The presbyter had informed church leaders that the minister was divorced, dishonest, unable to perform pastoral duties because of throat surgery, and that he had made an improper sexual advance to a church member in Alaska. The minister sued the presbyter for interference with contract. A state supreme court ruled that the interference with contract claim could be resolved by the civil courts.

The takeaway point is this—church leaders should never communicate potentially damaging information to another church or employer concerning a current employee without first seeking legal counsel. Duncan v. Peterson, 947 N.E.2d 305 (Ill. App. 2010).

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