West v. Morris, 711 A.2d 1269 (D.C. 1998)
Key point. It is the prevailing view that the civil courts are prohibited by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving lawsuits brought by dismissed clergy challenging their dismissals, particularly if the resolution of such a dispute would require consideration of ecclesiastical matters.
Key point. Some courts require that lawsuits brought against churches contain more than vague and unsubstantiated allegations. They must "verify the truth of the charges in detail" to avoid being dismissed.
A District of Columbia court of appeals ruled that the first amendment prevented it from resolving a lawsuit by a purported church member who claimed that the election of a pastor at a church business meeting was invalid because it was in violation of procedural requirements mandated by the District of Columbia nonprofit corporations law.
Specifically, the lawsuit alleged that the church had failed to provide proper notice of the meeting. The lawsuit asked the court to award money damages, order a new election, and compel the pastor to return all moneys he had been paid by the church. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that the plaintiff failed to state whether or not he was a member. The plaintiff appealed, insisting that the lawsuit contained an "indirect allegation" of membership by noting that the church had violated his rights under the nonprofit corporation law.
The appeals court affirmed the dismissal of the case. It concluded that the level of specificity required of a lawsuit is quite low. A lawsuit must simply put the defendant on notice that he or she is being sued and briefly state the basis of liability. However, there are exceptions. In some cases, the courts require that a lawsuit contain much greater "specificity." One such exception involves allegations of fraud. The court recognized another exception in the context of conduct protected by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom:
[The first amendment] precludes civil courts from adjudicating church fights that require extensive inquiry into matters of ecclesiastical cognizance. In cases which may implicate conduct protected by the [first amendment], greater specificity of pleading is required than in other kinds of suits …. [W]hen the first amendment casts a shadow over the court's … jurisdiction, the plaintiff is obligated to plead unqualified jurisdictional facts that clearly take the case outside the constitutional bar. There is no justifiable reason to make a church answer a complaint, let alone go through discovery, unless a plaintiff specifically and unequivocally pleads all facts necessary to establish the court's jurisdiction.
The court noted that lawsuits alleging fraud require "unequivocal, specific allegations … that verify the truth of the charges in detail," and it concluded that "no less should be required when the constitution severely circumscribes the court's … jurisdiction over church controversies." Turning to the plaintiff's lawsuit, the court noted that "the complaint was deficient" since "his allegations did not clearly establish that he was a member of the church, or that he was entitled, under the church's articles of incorporation or bylaws, to notice of, or the right to participate in, the selection of the pastor."
Application. This is an important case. It suggests that lawsuits involving internal church controversies are subject to dismissal if they fail to "specifically and unequivocally plead all facts necessary to establish the court's jurisdiction" and "verify the truth of the charges in detail." This will be a useful precedent for church attorneys to site when a lawsuit brought against a church contains vague allegations of liability unsupported by any facts. Unfortunately, such lawsuits are common today. This case represents a potentially effective check.