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Second Episcopal District African Methodist Episcopal Church, et al v. Reverend Deloris Prioleau

August 9, 2012

SECOND EPISCOPAL DISTRICT AFRICAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH, ET AL., APPELLANTS,
v.
REVEREND DELORIS PRIOLEAU, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAB-6532-09) (Hon. Judith N. Macaluso, Trial Judge)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Washington, Chief Judge:

Argued May 15, 2012

Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge, and FISHER and EASTERLY, Associate Judges.

Second Episcopal District African Methodist Episcopal Church and Cornerstone African Methodist Episcopal Church appeal from a trial court order denying their motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. As before the trial court, appellants claim immunity from suit under the religion clauses of the First Amendment. We affirm.

I.

On September 10, 2009, Reverend Deloris Prioleau filed a complaint in Superior Court asserting a single claim for breach of contract against Second Episcopal District African Methodist Episcopal Church and Cornerstone African Methodist Episcopal Church (collectively, "the church" or "appellants"). According to her complaint, Reverend Prioleau entered into a series of year-long contracts with the church. The church paid her as promised under each of the contracts, with one exception. The church failed to pay her $39,000 it owed her under the contract covering her final year as pastor.

On December 8, 2009, appellants filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, claiming immunity from suit. On January 19, 2010, the trial court denied the motion by written order. On July 12, 2010, appellants filed another motion to dismiss, again claiming immunity but characterizing the motion to dismiss as a "factual" attack on jurisdiction. Along with the motion to dismiss, appellants submitted letters from two members of the church. The trial court held an evidentiary hearing on March 3, 2011, wherein Reverend Prioleau presented testimony of three witnesses. Appellants did not present testimony at the hearing.

The evidence showed that Reverend Prioleau is a Class A pastor within the hierarchy of the African Methodist Episcopal ("AME") Church. In April 2004, Reverend Prioleau was given a charge to serve as pastor of the Cornerstone AME Church for one year, and the charge was renewed in April 2005, April 2006, and April 2007. When Reverend Prioleau became pastor in April 2004, the church had low enrollment, it had defaulted on its second mortgage, and it had been in default for two years. The church also needed renovations - it did not even have a front door. After almost two years of efforts, Reverend Prioleau managed to refinance the mortgage and obtained $79,000 from the refinancing. The Church Conference (i.e., the enrolled congregation) decided to use the funds to renovate the church. When major problems with the electrical and plumbing systems threatened to derail the renovations, the Church Conference decided to take out an additional loan.*fn1

The church paid Reverend Prioleau in accordance with the parties' yearly contracts during her first three years as pastor. However, because of the church's financial difficulties, in her fourth year, Reverend Prioleau agreed to receive her salary and housing allowance on a payment plan rather than in the amounts and on the schedule previously agreed upon. She received payments in accordance with the payment plan until April 2008. At the Annual Conference that year, Reverend Prioleau was given a charge to serve as pastor at a different church. She refused the charge, and from that point on, she did not receive any further payments from the church. Reverend Prioleau testified that the church owes her $39,200 under terms of the contract covering her final year of service at Cornerstone AME.

Cornerstone AME's Steward and Finance Board ("Board") met in April 2008. The Board's budget director, Mary Warren,*fn2 presented to the Board a statement of accounts which listed the individuals to whom money was owed, how much was owed, and whether payments were in arrears. According to the statement, the church owed Reverend Prioleau $39,200 and had a total debt of $63,570. Six of the nine Board members attended the meeting at which the statement of accounts was presented, and they all signed the document. In doing so, they declared, "We the officers of the Cornerstone AME Church agree that all of these debts are accurate as of 4/6/2008." When discussing the church's debt to Reverend Prioleau, the Board did not discuss whether she had performed her obligations in accordance with religious doctrine. Ms. Warren later presented the statement of accounts to the Presiding Elder, as she had done in previous years.

After hearing all the evidence, the trial court concluded that Reverend Prioleau had "established by a preponderance of the evidence that this is a straightforward contract case, uncomplicated by ecclesiastical considerations." This appeal followed.

II.

The issue of subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law that this court reviews de novo. Pardue v. Center City Consortium Sch. of the Archdiocese of Washington, Inc., 875 A.2d 669, 675 (D.C. 2005); Meshel v. Ohev Shalom Talmud Torah, 869 A.2d 343, 353 (D.C. 2005); Heard v. Johnson, 810 A.2d 871, 877 (D.C. 2002); Bible Way Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith of Washington v. Beards (Bible Way Church), 680 A.2d 419, 427 (D.C. 1996).

Not all attacks on subject matter jurisdiction are analyzed under the same standard. In a "facial" attack, the court determines jurisdiction by looking only at the face of the complaint and taking as true the allegations in the complaint. Heard, 810 A.2d at 877. By contrast, in a "factual" attack, the court considers matters outside the face of the complaint and does not presume that the allegations in the complaint are true. Id. at 878. Moreover, a "factual" attack "may occur at any stage of the proceedings and [the] plaintiff bears the burden of proof that jurisdiction does in fact exist." Id. (quotation marks and citation omitted). Here, appellants' July 12, 2010, motion to ...


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