United States District Court, District of Columbia
G. Sullivan United States District Judge.
Gregorio, co-founder of the Capital Wesleyan Church
(“Capital”), brings this action individually and
as the Pastor and Minister in Charge of Capital against the
Chesapeake District of the Wesleyan Church
(“Chesapeake”) and Stanley K. Hoover,
Chesapeake's Superintendent. Mr. Gregorio asserts claims
of breach of contract, unjust enrichment, wrongful eviction,
defamation, and age discrimination. Defendants have moved to
dismiss Mr. Gregorio's complaint for lack of subject
matter jurisdiction or, in the alternative, for failure to
state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Upon
consideration of the motion, the response and reply thereto,
the applicable law, and for the reasons discussed below,
defendants' motion to dismiss is GRANTED IN PART and
DENIED IN PART.
facts alleged in the complaint are as follows. In 1995,
Newton Gregorio and his wife, Lynette Gregorio, co-founded
the Capital Inner City Outreach Ministry, which they later
incorporated as the Capital Wesleyan Church. Compl., ECF No.
1-1 ¶ 6. Capital adopted and affiliated itself with
Wesleyan religious doctrines and principles but retained its
organizational, administrative, and pastoral independence
vis-à-vis the national Wesleyan Church and the
national Church's mid-Atlantic regional subsidiary, the
Chesapeake District of the Wesleyan Church. Id.
that independence, Chesapeake procured a loan in the amount
of $110, 000 from the Wesleyan Investment Foundation
(“WIF”) to be used for the purchase of property
at 383114th Street, Northwest, Washington, D.C., and Capital
and Chesapeake co-signed the promissory note related to that
loan. Id. ¶ 7. The Deed of Trust, however, was
in Chesapeake's name only, and Chesapeake holds title to
the property. Id. ¶¶ 7, 9. At some point,
Capital and Chesapeake “entered into an
agreement” related to the 383114th Street property that
provided that Chesapeake would secure and arrange the
financing to purchase the property; that Capital would be
responsible for repaying the loan; that Chesapeake would hold
title to the property while the loan was in repayment
“to protect against Capital's default on the
loan”; and that, when the loan was repaid, Chesapeake
would “relinquish the title to the property to Capital
free and clear of any encumbrances.” Id.
¶¶ 18, 21. By 2005, Capital, using “the funds
of the Capital membership without any contribution from
Chesapeake, ” had fully repaid the loan, but since that
time Chesapeake has refused to transfer title to Capital.
Id. ¶¶ 9, 16, 19, 21.
also obtained financing to purchase an adjacent property at
3829 14th Street, Northwest, Washington, D.C. and entered
into a “special arrangement” with Capital
“whereby the property would be owned by Chesapeake, but
Capital would be responsible for payment of the [p]romissory
[n]ote on the property.” Id. ¶¶ 17,
Thus, Mr. Gregorio “raised the funds to pay for”
the 3829 14th Street property. Id. ¶ 10. Those
payments were made until Chesapeake took action in the spring
and summer of 2015 to remove Mr. Gregorio from his positions
as Pastor and Minister in Charge of Capital. See Id.
Gregorio had held those positions along with his wife until
she passed away in 2011. See Id. ¶¶ 7, 10.
After Mr. Gregorio's wife's passing, Stanley K.
Hoover, the District Superintendent for Chesapeake, formally
appointed Mr. Gregorio as Minister in Charge of Capital.
Id. ¶ 10. Although Mr. Gregorio maintains that
Mr. Hoover and Chesapeake had no authority to determine who
was Minister in Charge of Capital, Mr. Gregorio accepted the
appointment and, concurrent with it, accepted a stipend of
$1, 500 per month. See Id. ¶¶ 10-11. Mr.
Gregorio stopped receiving that stipend in October 2012.
Id. ¶ 11.
April 29, 2015, Mr. Hoover informed Mr. Gregorio that it was
time for Mr. Gregorio to retire because Chesapeake had
“younger people” capable of taking his place and
that his last day as Minister in Charge would be May 31,
2015. Id. ¶ 12. Mr. Gregorio, however,
continued to assert his authority to act as Minister in
Charge. Id. Chesapeake and Mr. Hoover responded by
changing the locks to the buildings on the 3829 and 383114th
Street properties without notice to Mr. Gregorio.
Id. ¶ 13. On June 26 and July 2, 2015,
Chesapeake and Mr. Hoover sent a letter to law enforcement
authorities in the District of Columbia and Maryland stating
that Mr. Gregorio “had made illegal and unauthorized
entry onto the properties” and informed Mr. Gregorio
that he would be subject to arrest if he attempted to enter
them again. Id. ¶¶ 14, 38, 40.
Gregorio, individually and as Pastor and Minister in Charge
of Capital,  alleges six counts against Chesapeake and
Mr. Hoover: (1) breach of contract based on defendants'
failure to convey title to the 383114th Street property to
Capital pursuant to the agreement to carry out such a
transfer upon Capital's repayment of the WIF loan,
id. ¶¶ 17-22; (2) loss of wages based on
defendants' failure to pay the promised monthly stipend
of $1, 500 starting in October 2012, id.
¶¶ 23-26; (3) unjust enrichment based on
defendants' retention of the title to the 383114th Street
property despite Capital's repayment of the relevant
loan, and unjust enrichment based on defendants'
acceptance of Capital's payments on the loan pertaining
to the 3829 14th Street property, id. ¶¶
27-31; (4) wrongful eviction based on defendants changing the
locks to the buildings on the properties in order to prevent
Mr. Gregorio from accessing them, id. ¶¶
32-26; (5) defamation based on the letter defendants
disseminated to law enforcement authorities that stated that
Mr. Gregorio had illegally entered onto the properties,
id. ¶¶ 37-41; and (6) age discrimination
based on Mr. Hoover forcing Mr. Gregorio to retire from his
position at Capital because younger people were able to take
his place. Id. ¶¶ 42, 45-47.
removed the case to this Court, see Notice of
Removal, ECF No. 1, and have moved to dismiss the claims
against them because, they argue, this Court lacks subject
matter jurisdiction or, in the alternative, because Mr.
Gregorio has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be
granted. See generally Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss,
ECF No. 7. Defendants' motion is now ripe and ready for
the Court's adjudication.
federal district court may only hear a claim over which [it]
has subject matter jurisdiction; therefore, a Rule 12(b)(1)
motion for dismissal is a threshold challenge to a
court's jurisdiction.” Metro. Washington
Chapter v. District of Columbia, 57 F.Supp.3d 1, 13
(D.D.C. 2014). To survive a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss,
“the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing
jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence.”
Moran v. U.S. Capitol Police Bd., 820 F.Supp.2d 48,
53 (D.D.C. 2011) (citing Lujan v. Defenders of
Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992)). Because Rule
12(b)(1) concerns a court's ability to hear a particular
claim, “the court must scrutinize the plaintiff's
allegations more closely when considering a motion to dismiss
pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) than it would under a motion to
dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).” Schmidt v. U.S.
Capitol Police Bd., 826 F.Supp.2d 59, 65 (D.D.C. 2011).
In so doing, the court must accept as true all of the factual
allegations in the complaint and draw all reasonable
inferences in favor of the plaintiff, but the court need not
“accept inferences unsupported by the facts alleged or
legal conclusions that are cast as factual
allegations.” Rann v. Chao, 154 F.Supp.2d 61,
64 (D.D.C. 2001). In reviewing a motion to dismiss pursuant
to Rule 12(b)(1), the court “may consider such
materials outside the pleadings as it deems appropriate to
resolve the question whether it has jurisdiction to hear the
case.” Scolaro v. D.C. Bd. of Elections &
Ethics, 104 F.Supp.2d 18, 22 (D.D.C. 2000); see also
Jerome Stevens Pharm., Inc. v. FDA, 402 F.3d 1249, 1253
(D.C. Cir. 2005).
motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint.
Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242 (D.C. Cir.
2002). A complaint must contain “a short and plain
statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled
to relief, in order to give the defendant fair notice of what
the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it
rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S.
544, 555 (2007) (internal quotation marks omitted). The
plaintiff need not plead all of the elements of a prima facie
case in the complaint. See Swierkiewicz v. Sorema
N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 511-14 (2002).
this liberal pleading standard, to survive a motion to
dismiss, a complaint “must contain sufficient factual
matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is
plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556
U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted). A
claim is facially plausible when the facts pled in the
complaint allow the court to “draw the reasonable
inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct
alleged.” Id. The standard does not amount to
a “probability requirement, ” but it does require
more than a “sheer possibility that a defendant has
acted unlawfully.” Id.
ruling on a defendant's motion to dismiss [pursuant to
Rule 12(b)(6)], a judge must accept as true all of the
factual allegations contained in the complaint, ”
Atherton v. D.C. Office of the Mayor, 567 F.3d 672,
681 (D.C. Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted), and
the court must give the plaintiff the “benefit of all
inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.”
Kowal v. MCI Commc'ns Corp., 16 F.3d 1271, 1276
(D.C. Cir. 1994). Even so, the court need not “accept
inferences drawn by plaintiffs if such inferences are
unsupported by the facts set out in the complaint” or
“legal conclusions cast in the form of factual
allegations.” Id. Further, “[t]hreadbare
recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by
mere conclusory statements” are not sufficient to state
a claim. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.
determining whether a complaint states a claim, the court may
consider the facts alleged in the complaint, documents
attached thereto or incorporated therein, and matters of
which it may take judicial notice.” Abhe &
Svoboda, Inc. v. Chao, 508 F.3d 1052, 1059 (D.C. Cir.
2007) (internal quotation marks omitted). Among the documents
subject to judicial notice on a motion to dismiss are
“public records.” Kaempe v. Myers, 367
F.3d 958, 965 (D.C. Cir. 2004).
First Amendment Religious Entanglement Doctrines
on two doctrines rooted in the First Amendment's Religion
Clauses--the ministerial exception and the ecclesiastical
abstention doctrine--defendants argue that Mr. Gregorio's
claims are inextricably intertwined with religious matters
such that this Court, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), does not
have subject matter jurisdiction over them. See
Defs.' Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss
(“Defs.' Mem. Supp.”), ECF No. 7-1 at 6-7.
Although both of these doctrines can warrant dismissal of
claims on First Amendment grounds, the ministerial exception
“operates as an affirmative defense to an otherwise
cognizable claim, not a jurisdictional bar.”
Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church &
Sch. v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171, 195 n.4 (2012). Accordingly,
defendants' ministerial exception arguments are properly
analyzed under a Rule 12(b)(6), rather than a Rule 12(b)(1),
lens. See Cannata v. Catholic Diocese of Austin, 700
F.3d 169, 171 (5th Cir. 2012). However, without definitive
guidance otherwise from the Supreme Court or the D.C.
Circuit, the Court will analyze defendants' arguments
under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine--which is
“related” to but “distinct” from the
ministerial exception, see Kavanagh v. Zwilling, 997
F.Supp.2d 241, 248 n.7 (S.D.N.Y. 2014)--under a Rule 12(b)(1)
lens, as that approach is consistent with the long-standing
practice of treating questions of ecclesiastical entanglement
as jurisdictional. See id.
ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is grounded in a
“long line of Supreme Court cases that affirm the
fundamental right of churches to ‘decide for
themselves, free from state interference, matters of church
government as well as those of faith and
doctrine.'” EEOC v. Catholic Univ. of Am.,
83 F.3d 455, 462 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (quoting Kedroff v. St.
Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church in N. Am.,
344 U.S. 94, 116 (1952)). Accordingly, the doctrine
“limit[s] the role of civil courts in the resolution of
religious controversies that incidentally affect civil
rights, ” Serbian E. Orthodox Diocese v.
Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 710 (1976), and
“severely circumscribes the role that civil courts may
play in resolving church property disputes.”
Presbyterian Church v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Mem'l
Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 449 (1969). Even so,
“not every civil court decision as to property claimed
by a religious organization jeopardizes values protected by
the First Amendment.” Id. Thus, “a State
may adopt any one of various approaches for settling
church property disputes so long as it involves no
consideration of doctrinal matters, whether the ritual and
liturgy of worship or the tenets of faith.” Jones
v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 602 (1979) (internal quotation
marks omitted). The District of Columbia has adopted the
neutral principles approach to resolve church property
disputes. Family Fed'n for World Peace v. Hyun Jin
Moon, 129 A.3d 234, 249 (D.C. 2015). Under that
approach, a court “relies exclusively on objective,
well-established concepts of trust and property law familiar
to lawyers and judges, ” thereby keeping it free
“from entanglement in questions of religious doctrine,
polity, and practice.” Jones, 443 U.S. at 603.
As long as its analysis avoids judicial entanglement with
religious doctrine, a court under the neutral principles
approach can appropriately assess various documents,
including deeds, corporate charters, and church
constitutions. See Md. & Va. Eldership of the
Churches of God v. Church of God at Sharpsburg, Inc.,
396 U.S. 367, 367-68 (1970) (holding that a court's
resolution of a church property dispute did not involve an
inquiry into religious doctrine when the court had assessed
the language in deeds, the terms of corporate charters, and
the terms of a church's constitution).
related ministerial exception “precludes application of
[employment discrimination laws] to claims concerning the
employment relationship between a religious institution and
its ministers.” Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S. at
188. “The exception . . . ensures that the authority to
select and control who will minister to the faithful--a
matter strictly ecclesiastical--is the church's
alone.” Id. at 194-95 (internal quotation
marks and citation omitted). The Supreme Court has expressed
no view on whether the exception bars claims other than
employment discrimination claims. Id. at 196. In
this Circuit, the exception does not bar a breach of contract
claim when ...