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Religious defense doesn't discharge court's subject matter jurisdiction

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A court with authority to hear defamation and invasion of privacy claims is not ousted of subject matter jurisdiction just because a defendant pleads a religious defense, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled today.

In Rosalyn West v. Betty Wadlington, et al., No. 49S02-1009-CV-509, Rosalyn West filed a suit alleging defamation and invasion of privacy in Marion Superior Court against fellow church members Betty Wadlington and Jeanette Larkins. The City of Indianapolis as Larkins’ employer was also made a defendant after West learned a memo discussing West’s actions at the church was sent to Larkins at her Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department e-mail address. The memo was forwarded to 89 other people.

Larkins and the city filed a motion to dismiss under Indiana Trial Rule 12(B)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, arguing under the First and Fourteenth Amendments that any adjudication of the complaint would require entanglement of the church’s politics and doctrine. The trial court granted the motion and dismissed the complaint with prejudice for all the defendants; the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed.

The justices also reversed the trial court, but not for constitutional reasons. Using Brazauskas v. Fort Wayne South Bend Diocese, Inc., 796 N.E.2d 286 (Ind. 2003), as a guide, they held just as with a claim concerning employment disputes, a court that has authority to hear claims of defamation and invasion of privacy isn’t ousted of subject matter jurisdiction merely because a defendant pleads a religious defense. As such, the trial court erred in dismissing West’s complaint on this ground.

But this case isn’t ripe for adjudication using a summary judgment standard of review, noted Justice Robert Rucker. When a T.R. 12(B)(6) motion is treated as a motion for summary judgment, the court must allow the parties a reasonable opportunity to present summary judgment materials, and there is nothing in the record to suggest the trial court afforded the parties an opportunity to present T.R. 56 materials in support of or against summary judgment.

“Instead, because the parties treated the Defendants’ motion as one to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the trial court ruled accordingly. As noted above this was error. And on this ground we reverse the judgment of the trial court,” he wrote, remanding the issue for further proceedings.
 

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