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03/05/90 UNITED METHODIST CHURCH v. JOHN R. WHITE

March 5, 1990

THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH, BALTIMORE ANNUAL CONFERENCE, APPELLANT
v.
JOHN R. WHITE, APPELLEE



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; Hon. Stephen F. Eilperin, Trial Judge

Before Rogers, Chief Judge, Ferren and Belson, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rogers

ROGERS, Chief Judge: Appellant United Methodist Church, Baltimore Annual Conference (UMC) appeals from denials of its motions to dismiss the complaint and for reconsideration on the ground that the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment of the Constitution preclude civil courts from adjudicating religious disputes involving the qualifications or fitness of clergy. Appellee John R. White alleged that he was wrongfully discharged as a minister in the United Methodist Church, Baltimore Annual Conference and sought his reinstatement in addition to compensatory and punitive damages for alleged breaches of his employment contract. We reverse.

I

John R. White was an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, Baltimore Annual Conference. *fn1 He served as pastor at a number of United Methodist churches from 1970-85, and as a chaplain in the United States Air Force. In October 1984 he became severely depressed and emotionally disturbed. He was hospitalized for several months in the psychiatric ward at George Washington University Medical Center. On November 13, 1984, the Executive Committee of the Board of Ministry voted to place Rev. White on a leave of absence pursuant to para. 450.1 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (Discipline). In addition, pursuant to the requirements of the Discipline that a minister on leave of absence may not exercise his ministry beyond the confines of his local church and that his ecclesiastical endorsement must be withdrawn, the Division of Chaplains and Related Ministries, the General Board of Higher Education, *fn2 and the Ministry of the United Methodist Church sent a letter on September 16, 1985, to the Air Force withdrawing Rev. White's ecclesiastical endorsement.

A year and one half later, on May 13, 1987, the Baltimore Conference Board of Ministry recommended that Rev. White's conference membership be terminated. In accordance with the Discipline, para. 455.1(f), Rev. White was sent notice of the Board of Ministry's action by letter dated May 14, 1987. The contents of the letter were read to him on June 3, 1987. Eight days later, his counsel wrote to the Chairman of the Conference Relations Committee advising that he had "reviewed, in detail, the applicable provision of the Book of Discipline." Although Rev. White had only ten days after receiving notice of the termination of his conference membership to request a church trial, counsel did not request a church trial.

Rev. White's ministerial membership in the Baltimore Conference was terminated on June 9, 1987, pursuant to a vote of the Ministerial Executive Session of the 1987 Annual Conference due to "disobedience to the Order and Discipline of the United Methodist Church." On June 24, 1987, through counsel, he requested a church trial which was denied as untimely.

On March 28, 1988, Rev. White sued UMC for breach of contract seeking reinstatement of his ecclesiastical endorsement, a letter of apology, and compensatory and punitive damages. He also sought a declaration that he had exhausted his administrative remedies and demanded a jury trial. His complaint alleged that he was wrongfully discharged and divested of his ecclesiastical endorsement, denied related hospital and retirement benefits and compensation, and otherwise injured. UMC filed a motion to dismiss the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The motion was denied on May 20, 1988. On June 6, 1988, UMC filed a motion for reconsideration or for allowance of an immediate appeal, which was also denied on July 20, 1988. UMC filed a notice of appeal on August 20, 1988. *fn3 Rev. White then filed a motion to dismiss the appeal on the ground that the order appealed from was not a final order. This court initially dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction, but subsequently granted UMC's petition for rehearing.

II

Jurisdiction. Under D.C. Code § 11-721(a)(1) (1988), this court has jurisdiction to review all "final orders and judgments" of the Superior Court. In addition, appeals from certain interlocutory orders are permitted where they have a final and irreparable effect on important rights of the parties. *fn4 S ee Stein v. United States, 532 A.2d 641, 643 (D.C. 1987) (citing Cohen v. Beneficial Indus. Loan Corp., 337 U.S. 541, 545, 93 L. Ed. 1528, 69 S. Ct. 1221 (1949)). See also Smith v. Jenkins, 535 A.2d 1367 (D.C. 1987) (en banc (affirming Frost v. Peoples Drug Store, Inc., 327 A.2d 810, 812 (D.C. 1974) (interlocutory appeal from denial of motion to dismiss for forum non conveniens)). To come within the narrow exception to the rule of finality as a predicate for appellate jurisdiction, there are three prerequisites:

First, it "must conclusively determine the undisputed question"; second, it must "resolve an important issue completely separate from the merits of the action"; third, it must be "effectively unreviewable on appeal from a final judgment."

Stein, supra, 532 A.2d at 643 (quoting Flanagan v. United States, 465 U.S. 259, 265, 79 L. Ed. 2d 288, 104 S. Ct. 1051 (1984)). We hold that the denial of UMC's motion to dismiss on grounds of constitutional immunity meets these three tests.

First, the trial Judge, by denying UMC's motion to dismiss and motion for reconsideration, has conclusively determined the disputed issue of UMC's claim of immunity from suit in the civil courts.

Second, the very nature of an immunity claim makes it collateral to and separable from the merits of Rev. White's claim of wrongful termination. The issue in this appeal is whether Rev. White's claims fall, as a matter of law, within the scope of UMC's First Amendment immunity. In contending that the First Amendment protects the church from judicial inquiry into Rev. White's suit, UMC does not address the merits of the assertions in Rev. White's complaint against the church. Rather, UMC contests the authority of the civil courts to adjudicate a dispute between UMC and its pastor. Thus, the elements of UMC's immunity claim are clearly independent of any liability that it may bear for Rev. White's termination. Therefore, the issues raised by the trial Judge's denial of UMC's motion to ...


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