October 30, 1990
MOUNT JEZREEL CHRISTIANS WITHOUT A HOME, ET AL., APPELLANTS
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF MOUNT JEZREEL BAPTIST CHURCH, ET AL., APPELLEES
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 the trustees of the church.
A threshold question in this case is whether members of a church can bring suit against the trustees or governors of their church on the theory that they are "trust beneficiaries." The trial court concluded that they could not, and held that "plaintiffs have no status as trust beneficiaries under the deed titled in the names of the trustees of the church." We disagree.
Mount Jezreel Baptist Church was incorporated in 1883 "for the purpose of religious worship and holding . . . services at the church building on the southeast corner of Fifth Street and E Street, Southeast . . . ." Although title to the church property is "vested in the trustees or directors," the property itself is held in trust "for the uses and purposes named and no other." D.C. Code § 29-908 (1981). Because the church was incorporated for the purpose of religious worship, and because the property was held in trust for that purpose, the members of the congregation are indeed the beneficiaries of the trust. *fn4 As such, they have standing to sue the trustees in the event that the trust property is used or disposed of in a manner contrary to the stated purposes of the trust. See Hooker v. Edes Home, 579 A.2d 608 (D.C. 1990), citing YMCA v. Covington, 484 A.2d 589, 591 (D.C. 1984); see also RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TRUSTS § 391 (1959) ("A suit can be maintained for the enforcement of a charitable trust by the Attorney General or other public officer, or by a co-trustee, or by a person who has a special interest in the enforcement of the charitable trust, but not by persons who have no special interest"). Furthermore, when the use or Disposition of church property is disputed, the courts may be called upon to determine which faction of the congregation is entitled to the assets. Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 602, 99 S. Ct. 3020, 61 L. Ed. 2d 775 (1979) ("The State has an obvious and legitimate interest in the peaceful resolution of property disputes, and in providing a civil forum where the ownership of church property can be determined conclusively"); see Presbyterian Church in the United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 449, 89 S. Ct. 601, 21 L. Ed. 2d 658 (1969) (First Amendment "commands civil courts to decide church property disputes without resolving underlying controversies over religious doctrine"). We therefore hold that, as a general principle, bona fide members of a church have standing to bring suits as trust beneficiaries when there is a dispute over the use or Disposition of church property. Hooker v. Edes Home, supra, slip op. at 10; YMCA v. Covington, supra, 484 A.2d at 591.
Our next step is to determine whether the plaintiffs named in the amended complaint were bona fide members of the congregation. *fn5 The trial court found that the plaintiffs were not "members in good standing of Mount Jezreel Baptist Church at the time when they filed this cause of action," and that they therefore lacked standing to sue the trustees and the pastor. While it may or may not be true that some of the named plaintiffs lack standing, the trial court's determination that none of them had standing was clearly erroneous. This is particularly important because we have held that when several plaintiffs are named, all must lack standing before a dismissal on standing grounds may be upheld. See Hooker v. Edes Home, supra, slip op. at 21-22. Because we conclude that the trial court's factual findings regarding the plaintiffs' standing were, at least in part, plainly wrong and without evidentiary support, see D.C. Code § 17-305(a) (1989), we reverse the dismissal of their complaint and remand this case for further proceedings.
A. Truehart, Gilliam, Emerson, and Kirksey
Of the eleven surviving plaintiffs, four were not mentioned at all by the trial court in its order dismissing the complaint: Ruth Truehart, Nannie Gilliam, Jane Emerson, and Estelle Kirksey. According to an affidavit by one of the appellees, Reverend Trammell, dated October 19, 1984 (three weeks after the amended complaint was lodged with the court, along with a motion for leave to file it), these four -- identified by name -- were "considered members in good standing" of the church. *fn6 Furthermore, counsel for appellees filed in October 1984 a "Statement of Genuine Facts to Which There Is No Dispute," pursuant to Super. Ct. Civ. R. 12-I(k), to accompany a motion for summary judgment. That statement said that "a search of the Church membership roll and financial records reveals that purported plaintiffs (amended complaint) Ruth Truehart, Nannie Gilliam, Jane Emerson, and Estelle Kirksey are in fact and, indeed, members of good standing of the Mount Jezreel Baptist Church." *fn7 Truehart herself said in an affidavit that she had been a member of the church since 1950 and a deaconess for more than twenty years, and Gilliam said in an affidavit that she had joined the church in 1959 and "attended church regularly since that time." There appears to be no evidence at all that these four plaintiffs were not members of the church; consequently, they have standing to bring this suit, and the court's dismissal of the complaint as to them must be reversed.
B. Harvey and Herrod
Jacqueline Harvey and Marcellus Herrod, unlike the four persons discussed above in part A, are listed among the named plaintiffs in the first numbered paragraph of the trial court's order. In dismissing the action as to them, however, the court ignored the only relevant evidence of their status as church members. Robert Haigler, the chairman of the church's board of trustees, testified at a hearing on September 14, 1988, that Jacqueline Harvey "is presently a member. The right hand of fellowship was not withdrawn from her." A few pages later in the transcript, Haigler acknowledged that the presence of Marcellus Herrod's name on a list of 1982 contributors showed that Herrod was also a church member. Mr. Haigler's testimony thus shows affirmatively that Harvey and Herrod were members of the church. There being no evidence to the contrary, *fn8 we hold that the dismissal of the complaint as to Harvey and Herrod is also erroneous and must be reversed.
C. Emma Anderson, Pattie Anderson, Mildred Colbert, and Marion Stroud
The trial Judge found that the "Right Hand of Fellowship" had been withdrawn "from these plaintiffs." This finding apparently refers to a church disciplinary action in February 1979 whereby four members of the congregation -- Emma Anderson, Pattie Anderson, Mildred Colbert, and Marion Stroud -- were dismissed. *fn9 It is inconsistent, however, with an earlier finding of the same trial Judge, dated June 3, 1986, which states:
The Court further finds that each of the following occurrences constitutes a badge of fraud:
(h) Defendants' attempts to expel members and bar them from entering upon corporate property for any purpose, allegedly in violation of the rules or discipline of the Church, when such members express disagreement with defendants' management practices and procedures . . . . *fn10
Because the court found in 1986 that the 1979 expulsion of these four plaintiffs was fraudulent, the later determination that these four plaintiffs lacked standing is, at best, questionable. We need not decide whether the prior ruling constituted the law Of the case, as appellants argue. See Ehrenhaft v. Malcolm Price, Inc., 483 A.2d 1192, 1196-1197 (D.C. 1984). We deem it sufficient to note the inconsistent findings and remand the case with directions to resolve the inconsistency.
D. Jennifer Colbert
As to this one remaining plaintiff, the record is murky. The trial court, in listing the plaintiffs by name in its order, referred to one of them as "Jennifer Kershaw Green." This is apparently an amalgam of two names, Jennifer Colbert and Kershaw Green. Mr. Green is now deceased, but as far as we know, Jennifer Colbert is very much alive. Given this confusion in the court's order, resulting in a misidentification of one of the plaintiffs, we remand the case with directions to clarify the membership status of Jennifer Colbert.
Of the eleven named plaintiffs who are still alive, we are satisfied that at least six were shown to have standing to bring this suit. Reverend Trammell, one of the appellees, admitted in an affidavit that Ruth Truehart, Nannie Gilliam, Jane Emerson, and Estelle Kirksey were church members in good standing, and appellees admitted on the record that Harvey and Herrod were also church members. Furthermore, the court's Conclusion that the "right hand of fellowship" had been "withdrawn" from Emma Anderson, Pattie Anderson, Mildred Colbert, and Marion Stroud cannot be reconciled with its earlier finding that the proposed expulsion of these four women "constitute a badge of fraud." Finally, the membership status of Jennifer Colbert needs to be resolved.
The order dismissing the complaint is therefore reversed, and this case is remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.
Reversed and remanded.