ECUSA Loses (Tentatively) Summary Judgment in San Joaquin
Yesterday was an unbelievable day for a (long-planned) vacation—church litigation news has virtually prevented me from beginning to relax and enjoy it yet. When the news is favorable, however, I am the last to mind or complain about the burden of sharing it with you.
Thus it is that, as I was working on the immediately preceding post about the new federal case in South Carolina, my office forwarded, late in the afternoon, the tentative ruling from the Fresno Superior Court on the motion for summary judgment which ECUSA and Bishop Lamb (now Bishop Talton) brought against Bishop John-David Schofield to recover all of the property of his Anglican Diocese.
The tentative ruling was to deny the motion—meaning that the case will have to go to trial before it can be finally decided. In short the court held that the plaintiffs failed to meet their burden on summary judgment: they failed to show, in effect, that a Diocese of the Church is prohibited from leaving it as a matter of law.
ECUSA had tried all of its usual “hierarchical” arguments, but the Court indicates it is not inclined to buy them (again, this is its tentative ruling - it may be read and downloaded at this link):
The question presented here is who owns the Church property of a formerly subordinate branch of a hierarchical church when the branch breaks off from the general church in exercise of its first amendment rights? The answer, according to California case law, depends on the interpretation of the governing documents of the branch and Church. Plaintiffs have failed to submit these necessary documents and have thus failed to meet their evidentiary burden on summary judgment/adjudication. Thus, the motion must be denied.
Plaintiffs read the Schofield decision as supporting their motion for summary judgment/adjudication, because, as they contend, the only issue for this court is the determination of the date that Bishop Schofield transferred the Episcopal Diocese’s property to the Anglican Diocese. Because it is undisputed that the retitling of the accounts occurred after Schofield was inhibited and deposed as Bishop of the Episcopal Church, plaintiffs assert that judgment must be granted, because at the time the transfers were made, Schofield lacked any authority to make them.
Defendants interpret the Schofield decision differently. They see it leaving only the issue of whether the December 8, 2007 vote of the 2007 Diocese of San Joaquin’s Annual Convention was ultra vires under neutral principles of law. Because defendants assert that there can be no qualification on an individual’s or association’s right to freedom of association under the First Amendment, they should be free to take “their” property with them to their new denomination.
Here, plaintiffs bore the burden to present evidence establishing every element necessary to show defendants’ conduct in retaining the property owned by the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin as of December 7, 2007, was unlawful as a matter of law. [Citations omitted.] They have not done so.
Plaintiffs take the position that because all the property transfers occurred after Schofield was deposed as Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese, he therefore had no authority to make those transfers. The rights of departing Dioceses have not been considered in any published California opinion….
The tentative ruling goes on to review the California case law regarding departing parishes, and stresses that the cases require the courts to apply “neutral principles” in resolving such disputes. It goes back to the Schofield decision to ascertain just what those “neutral principles” are:
As the Schofield Court recognized:
These neutral principles include First Amendment rights of individuals and corporations (see Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n (2010) 558 U.S. 310, -, 130 S.Ct. 876, 899, 175 L.Ed.2d 753), general California statutory and common law principles governing transfer of title by the legal title holder, the law of trusts, including establishment of trusts and transfers by a trustee in contravention of a trust upon the property (if a trust is established by the evidence), and corporations law, including the law of corporations sole (see Corp.Code, § 10010) and general principles of corporate governance. Other neutral principles of civil law may be relevant; and the governing documents of the diocese and the national church, to the extent those documents may establish trust relationships and limit or expand corporate powers.
It is not enough for plaintiffs to merely state that Schofield was not the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of San Joaquin when he effected the transfers at issue. Plaintiffs were also required to show that, under neutral principles of law, Schofield lacked the authority to effect such transfers. In this regard, plaintiffs’ Undisputed Material Fact No. 10 is inadequate. It merely states there is no rule of the Episcopal Church or Diocese permitting a deposed Episcopal Bishop to transfer Episcopal property. However, if the December 8, 2007 amendments to withdraw the Diocese of San Joaquin from the general Episcopal Church were valid, Schofield could, in fact, have retained the authority over the property of the Diocese….
Plaintiffs have utterly failed to present either facts or evidence from which this court could conclude that the December 8, 2007 amendments enacted to leave the Episcopal Church were invalid. Unlike plaintiffs’ prior motion for summary adjudication, there are no facts regarding the contents of the Episcopal Church’s Canons or Constitution either at the time of the disaffiliation, or in 1961, the year the Diocese of San Joaquin was accepted into the Episcopal Church. Likewise, there are no facts concerning the text of the Episcopal Diocese’s by-laws, Constitution or governing documents for any relevant year. In short, there is nothing to for this court to review under neutral principles of law.
Again, this is the court’s tentative ruling, meaning that the court could change it after oral argument. Nevertheless, the ruling shows that the court grasps the essence of the case, and understands why the plaintiffs have not shown they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
The court has expressly directed that oral argument will take place not today, but next Wednesday, beginning at 3:30 p.m. I shall post a further update after the argument. The court may take the matter “under advisement” after hearing argument, and issue its final decision some time later. But because its denial of plaintiffs’ motion was due to their failure to present any evidence on which the court could conclude that dioceses are forbidden by some provision of the national Constitution or canons from ever withdrawing, and because there simply is no such evidence that they could ever present, I expect that the court ultimately will affirm its tentative ruling.
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