Wisconsin Supreme Court Plurality Dismisses Breach of Contract Claim Under Ministerial Exception

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has dismissed a breach of contract claim against St. Patrick Congregation, a Roman Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Wisconsin.  The reasoning is…complicated.

The plaintiff had entered into a one-year contract with the Church as “Director of Faith Formation,” and the terms of the contract provided that dismissal was to occur only for “good cause” as determined by the Church.  It was undisputed that the plaintiff was a “ministerial employee,” but the plaintiff sued for her expectation damages (that is, she had already been paid for services rendered) when the Church terminated her.

The Church did not defend on the issue of whether the termination was for good cause.  It instead moved to dismiss under the First Amendment and Article I section 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution (“The right of every person to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of conscience shall never be infringed; … nor shall any control of, or interference with, the rights of conscience be permitted….”), on the basis that the plaintiff was a ministerial employee and that the Church is a religious institution.

The case was dismissed but the rationale is kind of a mess. 

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has 7 members.  3 Justices would have decided the case under the U.S. and Wisconsin Constitutions, relying on Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC and the ministerial exception: “any inquiry into the validity of a religious institution’s reasons for the firing of a ministerial employee will involve consideration of ecclesiastical decision-making.”  Note that this reasoning extends the holding of Hosanna-Tabor, which expressly reserved the issue whether contractual or tort claims were covered by the ministerial exception (“We express no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits, including actions by employees alleging breach of contract or tortious conduct by their religious employers.”).  My own view, for what it’s worth, is that the language in this opinion is too absolute and not context-specific enough.  This contract was for a very limited term.  The plaintiff was seeking expectation damages.  More inquiry would have been warranted, as the situation was factually different than Hosanna-Tabor.

 1 Justice concurred, but would have avoided the constitutional questions altogether.  He would have decided the case on the terms of the contract, which vested sole authority in the Church to decide what constituted good cause.

1 Justice concurred, observing that Hosanna-Tabor was not directly on point but that its dicta (and similar lanaguage in a Wisconsin case) “put Wisconsin courts on high alert when they are asked to enforce a contract by a religious organization in a manner that the religious organization contends is a violation of its constitutional rights.”  But ultimately he would have relied on the contractual language to resolve the dispute in the Church’s favor.

2 Justices dissented, arguing that Hosanna-Tabor was inapplicable to a breach of contract case like this one.   The plaintiff’s common law contract claims “do not implicate free exercise concerns,” the dissent wrote.  State regulation of hiring and firing is a different issue than the resolution of a private contractual term (this distinction seems tenuous to me: wouldn’t a court be “regulating” or “mandating” by resolving this dispute?).  And as for the Establishment Clause and the issue of excessive entanglement, the dissent pointed out that we simply don’t know the extent to which a court would need to entangle itself with the Church’s affairs to resolve this breach of contract case, because the case is only at the dismissal stage.  Excessive entanglement concerns are “speculative” at this point.  Here, I think the dissent makes an entirely reasonable point: dismissal of a breach of contract claim without any inquiry at all is a sweepingly context-insensitive approach, in my view.

The case is DeBruin v. St. Patrick Congregation, 2012 WL 2849271 (Wis. July 12, 2012).

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