Pastor, Church & Law

Court Decisions Rejecting Fiduciary Duty Claims

§ 10.13.02

Key point 10-13.02. Several courts have refused to hold churches and denominational agencies liable on the basis of a breach of a fiduciary duty for the sexual misconduct of a minister. In some cases, this result is based on First Amendment considerations.

This section reviews court decisions in which a church or other religious organization was found not liable on the basis of breaching a fiduciary duty. Many courts have concluded that the First Amendment’s “nonestablishment of religion” and “free exercise of religion” clauses prevent the civil courts from resolving such claims involving clergy misconduct.

Case Studies

  • A federal court in Colorado ruled that a church was not liable on the basis of negligence or fiduciary duty for a Sunday School teacher’s sexual relationship with one of his adolescent students off of church premises.163 Lindeman, 2014 WL 2505647 (D. Colo. 2014).
  • A federal appeals court, applying Illinois law, ruled that a church and denominational agency were not legally responsible for a pastoral counselor’s sexual contacts with a female counselee.164 Dausch v. Rykse, 52 F.3d 1425 (7th Cir. 1994).In rejecting the woman’s claim that the church and denominational agency were legally responsible for her injuries on the basis of a breach of a fiduciary duty they owed her, the court observed, “At the outset [we] note that [the woman] cited no Illinois authority establishing that Illinois recognizes such a fiduciary duty. … Moreover, given the constitutional difficulties that would be encountered if a cause of action for breach of fiduciary duty were permitted under these circumstances, we ought to be particularly cautious in assuming that Illinois has taken such a step. If the court were to recognize such a breach of fiduciary duty, it would be required to define a reasonable duty standard and to evaluate [the pastor’s] conduct against that standard, an inquiry identical to that which Illinois has declined to undertake in the context of a clergy malpractice claim and one that is of doubtful validity under the free exercise [of religion] clause [of the First Amendment]. It is clear that Illinois would not entertain a claim for breach of fiduciary obligation under the circumstances alleged here.”
  • A Florida court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment from resolving a woman’s claim that her priest and church were responsible on the basis of a breach of a fiduciary duty for the priest’s acts of sexual misconduct.165 Doe v. Evans, 718 So.2d 286 (Fla. App. 1998). The woman had sought out a priest for marital counseling, and alleged that the priest engaged in sexual contacts with her. The woman sued her church and diocese, claiming that they were aware of prior incidents involving sexual misconduct during counseling by the same priest. Despite this knowledge, nothing was done to address the problem. She claimed that the priest breached a fiduciary duty by becoming romantically involved with her, and that the church and diocese had a fiduciary relationship with her (because she reported the priest’s misconduct to them) that was breached. A state appeals court concluded that resolving the woman’s breach of fiduciary duty claims (against the priest, church, and diocese) would constitute excessive entanglement between church and state in violation of the First Amendment: “Taking the allegations of [her] complaint as true, [she] alleged the church defendants owed her a fiduciary duty, yet definition of that duty necessarily involves the secular court in church practices, doctrines, and belief. To establish a breach of the fiduciary duty allegedly owed to [her] by the church defendants, [she] would need to establish the church remained inactive in the face of her allegations against [the priest]. However, the church’s policies undoubtedly differ from the rules of another employer, and may require the nonsecular employer to respond differently when faced with such allegations. When a secular court interprets church law, policies, and practices it becomes excessively entangled in religion. We align ourselves with those courts finding a First Amendment bar to a breach of fiduciary duty claim as against church defendants, concluding resolution of such a claim would necessarily require the secular court to review and interpret church law, policies, and practices.”
  • The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a denominational agency was not liable on the basis of breach of a fiduciary duty, or negligent hiring or supervision, for a sexual relationship initiated by a pastor in the course of a counseling relationship with an adult member of his congregation.166 Petrell v. Shaw, 902 N.E.2d 401 (Mass. 2009)
  • The Ohio Supreme Court rejected a woman’s attempt to sue her church and pastor for injuries she allegedly suffered because of a sexual relationship with her pastor .167 Stock v. Pressnell, 527 N.E.2d 1235 (Ohio 1988). A husband and wife who had been experiencing marital problems went to a Lutheran minister for counseling. They selected him because “he held himself out to the public … as a minister and counselor trained and able to provide counseling for marital difficulties.” During the final three or four weeks of counseling, the minister allegedly engaged in consensual sexual relations with the wife. These relations, and the counseling, ended when the husband learned of the affair. The husband, who was later divorced from his wife, sued both the minister and his church. The suit against the minister alleged a breach of fiduciary duty, among other things. The state supreme court dismissed all of the husband’s claims. It noted that the breach of fiduciary claim, like the husband’s other claims, had to be dismissed since they all sought damages based on the minister’s seduction of the wife, and as such were barred by the state law prohibiting lawsuits based on “alienation of affections.”

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