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04/18/91 CHARLES E. WILLIAMS v. BOARD TRUSTEES

April 18, 1991

CHARLES E. WILLIAMS, ET AL., APPELLANTS
v.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF MOUNT JEZREEL BAPTIST CHURCH, ET AL., APPELLEES



Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; Hon. William S. Thompson, Trial Judge

Ferren, Belson, and Terry, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ferren

On March 24, 1989, after several conferences with the parties, a Masters' Report, and an evidentiary hearing, the trial court dismissed appellants' suit -- filed in 1982 -- against the Board of Trustees and Pastor of Mount Jezreel Baptist Church to prevent the sale of church property. The court ruled that appellants lacked standing to sue because they had been validly expelled from church membership. The court also imposed Rule 11 sanctions against appellant-attorney Charles E. Williams for filing a "spurious claim." Appellants -- Mr. Williams and his wife, Lorraine A. Williams -- contend the trial court erred: (1) in concluding that the doctrine of claim preclusion (res judicata) barred Charles Williams from asserting his standing to sue; (2) in failing to apply the law-of-the-case doctrine to sustain Charles Williams' standing to sue, regardless of any claim preclusion bar; (3) in denying the Williamses' alternative contention that participation in the church's "corporate body," if not in the church's "membership," entitled them as "trust beneficiaries" to sue the Board of Trustees for disposing of church property in a manner contrary to the purposes of the trust; and (4) in imposing an unjustifiable Rule 11 sanction. *fn1 Because the trial court's findings of fact and Conclusions of law that the Williamses lacked standing are sustainable on this record, we affirm the order dismissing the lawsuit. *fn2 Because we are unable to discern from the record how the trial court exercised its discretion in imposing Rule 11 sanctions, however, we remand the case for further findings (after a hearing, or not, in the court's discretion) as to whether sanctions are warranted and, if so, in what amount and how calculated.

I.

On January 20, 1982, the Williamses filed suit in Superior Court seeking a declaratory judgment that D.C. Code §§ 29-901 to -916 (1981) and the charter of the Mount Jezreel Baptist Church precluded the pastor and the board of trustees from selling the church's historic sanctuary building at Fifth and E Streets, S.E., without a vote of the members to amend the church's charter.

In their amended complaint filed February 27, 1984, appellants based their standing to sue on the fact that "each is an attendant and regular contributor and thus a member of the corporate body of the Mt. Jezreel Baptist Church." The amended complaint said:

4. Under the rules or discipline of the Mt. Jezreel Baptist Church, as well as [D.C. Code §§ 29-901 to -916 (1981)], the congregation consists of two official bodies, viz., the church (ecclesia) or communing fellowship and the society or corporate body. The pastor and deacons administer the ecclesiastical affairs and the defendant board of trustees is authorized by the law to manage the corporate estate "in accordance with the rules or discipline governing the church or denomination to which such society or congregation may belong. . . D.C. Code § 29-904." *fn3

8. Hiscox, THE NEW DIRECTORY FOR BAPTIST CHURCHES and ROBERT'S RULES OF ORDER form the basis of the rules or discipline of the Mt. Jezreel Baptist Church. . . .

9. Hiscox states, at page 117, that the congregation or "corporate body is a society composed of all attendants who are regular contributors whether members of the Church or not" . . . .

WHEREFORE, the plaintiffs demand that the Court adJudge:

(1) That plaintiffs are members of the corporate body of the Mt. Jezreel Baptist Church and thus have standing to maintain this suit. . . .

(emphasis in original). In the amended complaint, however, the Williamses did not advert to their earlier expulsions from church membership -- the withdrawal of the "right hand of fellowship" -- which in Charles Williams' case had been accompanied by six years of litigation in federal court. Appellees -- the board of trustees and the pastor -- answered by characterizing the amended complaint as "an attempt to relitigate matters previously litigated" and by charging appellants with "setting themselves forth as 'corporate members' of the church, without setting forth any criteria or classification of such membership." *fn4

When eight status and settlement conferences failed to produce an agreement, the trial Judge appointed two Special Masters on November 15, 1985, to determine (among other things) whether the Williamses had standing to conduct their lawsuit and whether they had been "expelled from membership in accordance with the rules and discipline of the Mt. Jezreel Baptist Church. " The Masters' report of February 8, 1988 concluded that both Williamses lacked standing because each had been validly expelled from church membership. *fn5 The Masters found that the Williamses' regular attendance and financial contributions -- which they claimed made them "corporate" members -- were not sufficient to confer standing to sue. Appellants objected to the report, claiming their expulsions from the church had been fraudulent. Charles Williams specifically denied the report's finding that he had agreed to be bound by the 1976 decision of the special panel of Baptist ministers which had resolved the membership issue against him as part of the settlement of his federal court lawsuit. See (supra) note 5. Appellees moved to dismiss the amended complaint. The Williamses opposed the motion, restating their claim to corporate memberships and challenging the church to produce evidence that they had been expelled "from the corporate body."

After an evidentiary hearing involving several witnesses, including a minister appointed by the federal district court to the 1976 panel, see (supra) note 5, and the church secretary who took the minutes of the 1979 church conference which expelled Lorraine Williams, the trial court granted appellees' motion and dismissed the amended complaint with prejudice. The court found:

1. That Charles E. Williams an attorney, is the same Charles E. Williams named plaintiff in Civil Action No. 3124-70, in the United States District Court of the District of Columbia.

2. That this suit was brought to challenge the action of the Mt. Jezreel Baptist Church in withdrawing the Right Hand of ...


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