Negligent Supervision and Sexual Offenses

A court rejected a plaintiff’s attempt to treat national, regional, and local churches as a “single employer” for liability purposes.

Church Law & Tax Report

Negligent Supervision and Sexual Offenses

A court rejected a plaintiff’s attempt to treat national, regional, and local churches as a “single employer” for liability purposes.

Key point 10-10.2. Many courts have ruled that the First Amendment prevents churches from being legally responsible on the basis of negligent supervision for the sexual misconduct of ministers.

Key point 10-18.2. Most courts have refused to hold denominational agencies liable for the acts of affiliated ministers and churches, either because of First Amendment considerations or because the relationship between the denominational agency and affiliated church or minister is too remote to support liability.

* A federal court in Washington ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a former church office administrator’s claim that a denominational agency was responsible on the basis of negligent supervision for sexual offenses made toward her by the church’s senior pastor. Sarah was employed as a church’s office administrator by a “missions” church that had recently been started by a denominational agency (the “national church”). Due to its missions status, the church was administered and supported by the national church. Sarah’s responsibilities included assisting in church organization, providing administrative support for the church’s senior and associate pastors, managing the office assistant and the music director, and handling church correspondence. Sarah alleged that a few months after she was hired, the church’s senior pastor began to make romantic advances toward her. These advances increased in intensity and persistence, ultimately culminating in the church’s dismissal of both Sarah and the senior pastor. Sarah sued the national church, and a regional church, for wrongful dismissal as well as negligent supervision of the pastor. The court dismissed both claims.

Wrongful discharge

The court acknowledged that the state of Washington has “a clear, well-defined public policy against sex discrimination and retaliation.” However, it noted that the courts “do not impose liability for wrongful discharge on parties not properly considered employers of the complaining party.” Since neither the national church nor regional church was Sarah’s “employer,” neither could be liable on the basis of wrongful discharge.

The court rejected Sarah’s argument that the local church, regional church, and national church should all be considered a “single employer” that could be sued for wrongful discharge. It noted:

Even if the court had found that the defendants could be exposed to liability under a single employer or an indirect employer theory, the plaintiff has failed to show that there is a genuine issue of material fact that either the [national church or regional church] are properly considered a single employer (together with the local church). With respect to plaintiff’s single employer theory, many of allegations regarding the intertwining of the [national, regional, and local churches] have to do with the two umbrella organizations’ involvement with the pastors of affiliated churches. However, involvement with and even complete control over the pastors of the churches does not rise to the level of “interrelation of operations” and “centralized control of labor relations” [required by the single employer theory].

The court referred to a federal appeals court decision finding that a parent corporation and a subsidiary corporation were an “integrated enterprise” for liability purposes because, among other things, the parent kept the subsidiary’s accounts, issued its paychecks and paid its bills; the parent’s vice president was the subsidiary’s president; and, the parent had the authority to hire and fire the subsidiary’s employees. Kang v. U. Lim America, Inc. 296 F.3d 810, 815 (9th Cir. 2002). This “interrelation of operations” and “centralized control of labor relations” was sufficient to treat the two corporations as a single employer or “integrated enterprise” for liability purposes. But, the Washington court pointed out that the relationship between the national, regional, and local churches was far from the level of interrelationship required for them to be treated as a single employer, and therefore the national and regional churches were not liable for the local church’s dismissal of Sarah.

Negligent supervision

The court noted that Sarah’s lawsuit alleged that the national and regional churches had a duty to supervise the senior pastor in his interactions with her, and “knew or should have known that he was engaging in conduct that was causing severe emotional distress to her.” These allegations, the court concluded, challenged national and regional churches’ supervision of the pastor, and as such “fell within the scope of the ministerial exception, a constitutionally-derived exception to civil rights legislation that insulates a religious organization’s employment decisions regarding its ministers from judicial scrutiny.” The court concluded: “Plaintiff’s negligent supervision claim specifically challenges the [national and regional churches’] supervision of [the pastor] rather than a decision not to intervene to stop or curtail the sexual harassment. Judicial scrutiny of the defendants’ supervision of [a pastor] would require the court to examine the church’s decisions regarding its pastor. As a result, the court finds that the First Amendment bars plaintiff’s negligent supervision claim against the [national and regional churches].”

Application. This case is significant for two reasons. First, the court rejected the plaintiff’s attempt to treat national, regional, and local churches as a “single employer” for liability purposes. Every other court that has addressed this issue has reached the same conclusion. A judicial recognition of the single employer theory would make every national religious denomination automatically liable for every employment-related offense committed by an affiliated church. Such a rule of absolute liability would force denominational agencies to assume risks of catastrophic proportion that would jeopardize their viability. While this court did not address the issue, it is likely that such a result would violate the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom. 2006 WL 1009283 (W.D. Wash. 2006)

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