Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; Hon. William S. Thompson, Trial Judge
Newman, Belson, and Terry, Associate Judges.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terry
This is a complicated, emotional dispute between members of a church congregation and the governing board of the church. The sole issue before us, however, is whether the trial court was correct when it dismissed the plaintiffs' suit on the ground that they did not have standing to bring it. Because we hold that six of the named plaintiffs do indeed have standing and four others have at least a colorable claim to standing, and because the status of one plaintiff cannot be determined on the present record, we reverse the dismissal and remand the case for further proceedings.
Mount Jezreel Baptist Church was incorporated in 1883. The original certificate of incorporation stated that it was formed "for the purpose of religious worship . . . at the church building on the southeast corner of Fifth Street and E Street, Southeast, in the City of Washington . . . ." In August 1982, after the safety of the building allegedly became an issue, the pastor and the Board of Trustees decided to close the doors of the historic church building at Fifth and E Streets and move to a new location. *fn1
Appellants are members or former members of the church congregation who claim that the trustees improperly managed the church's assets and business affairs. In the decade before the filing of this suit, relations between the church hierarchy and a segment of the congregation -- of which appellants are a sub-group -- became increasingly hostile, and a barrage of litigation followed. *fn2
On July 20, 1984, calling themselves "Mount Jezreel Christians Without a Home," three members of the congregation filed this action against the trustees and Reverend Harold Trammell, the pastor, alleging violations of their fiduciary duty. An amended complaint included ten additional plaintiffs. *fn3 Appellants state in their brief that they "brought suit in an attempt to salvage the historic old Mount Jezreel church building and to challenge a series of ultra vires actions by the . . . Board of Trustees . . . and Rev. Harold Trammell . . . with respect to the building and other property belonging to the congregation." Appellees filed a motion to dismiss the amended complaint, alleging that the named plaintiffs all lacked standing. The motion stated that "the so-called persons claiming to be Christians Without a Church Home are not members of Mount Jezreel Baptist Church. These persons were disfellowshipped by a due resolution on February 28, 1979."
After a hearing, the trial court granted the motion and dismissed the amended complaint with prejudice. It found as a fact:
That the Christians Without A . . . Home claim to be members in good standing of Mt. Jezreel Baptist Church located at 501 E Street, Southeast. When asked at the hearing to identify themselves and church affiliation, they disavowed membership at Mt. Jezreel Baptist Church at 405 Riggs Road, Northeast. That the plaintiffs have clearly established that they have severed membership with Mt. Jezreel Baptist Church, 405 Riggs Road, Southeast .
The court's Conclusions of law contained the following:
1. That these persons herein, namely Mt. Jezreel [Christians Without A Home,] are not members in good standing of Mt. Jezreel Baptist Church and were not such at the time of the filing of their Complaint.
3. That these Plaintiffs, not being members in good standing of Mt. Jezreel Baptist Church at the time when they filed this cause of action, lack standing to prosecute this suit.
5. That Plaintiffs have no status as trust beneficiaries under the deed titled in the names of ...