COA revives fired Cathedral High School teacher’s lawsuit against Indianapolis Archdiocese

Editor’s note: This article has been updated.

A gay teacher who sued the Archdiocese of Indianapolis after he was terminated from his teaching position at Cathedral High School has been given another chance to make his case after the Court of Appeals of Indiana found the trial court committed reversible error in dismissing the lawsuit.

The ruling from the unanimous appellate panel revives the complaint filed by Joshua Payne-Elliott, who was fired after teaching at Cathedral for 13 years because he married his same-sex partner.

In Joshua Payne-Elliott v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Inc., 21A-CP-936, the Court of Appeals found the Marion Superior Court committed three reversible errors. Primarily, the COA ruled the trial court erred by summarily dismissing Payne-Elliott’s complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction; failing to treat the Archdiocese’s motion to dismiss as a motion for summary judgment; and dismissing Payne-Elliott’s complaint with prejudice.

The Archdiocese had raised the ministerial exception defense, claiming the civil court could not interfere with the employment dispute because it involved matters of religious doctrine and faith. However, the Court of Appeals ruled the issues raised by Payne-Elliott were not ripe for resolution on summary judgment.

The case has been remanded for further proceedings.

“We feel vindicated that the Court of Appeals has firmly rejected the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’s efforts to sidestep the judicial process,” Payne-Elliott said in a statement. “We remain confident that the discovery process will demonstrate the righteousness of our case and hold the Archdiocese accountable for violations of Indiana law.”

Payne-Elliott had taught language and social studies at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis since 2006. Each year he was offered a contract by Cathedral to continue his teaching assignment and had already signed the contract to teach during the 2019-2020 school year.

The Court of Appeals noted only Cathedral and Payne-Elliott were parties to the teaching contract.

Three days after renewing Payne-Elliott’s teaching contract, Cathedral told him the Archdiocese was requiring the school to adopt and enforce a morals clause or it risked losing its status as a recognized Catholic institution. The morals clause stated, in part, “As role models for students, the personal conduct of every teacher and staff member must convey and be supportive of the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

Cathedral terminated Payne-Elliott’s contract in June 2019, roughly a month after it had been signed.

After Stephen Heimann was appointed special judge, the Archdiocese filed a motion to dismiss. The Archdiocese argued the case should be tossed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Indiana Trial Rule 12(B)(1) and for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted pursuant to Indiana Trial Rule 12(B)(6). In particular, the Archdiocese asserted that under the First Amendment, Payne-Elliott’s claims would be barred by the ministerial exception.

The trial court subsequently denied the motion to dismiss, holding, in part, that more discovery was needed. Also, in denying the Archdiocese’s attempt to make an interlocutory appeal, the trial court noted there are exceptions to the ministerial exception doctrine and reiterated that more evidence was needed to determine if this case fits under an exception.

Likewise, the Indiana Supreme Court denied the Archdiocese’s subsequent motions for writ of mandamus and writ of prohibition. By the time the case returned to the trial court, Heimann had recused himself and Lance Hamner had been appointed special judge.

Following Hamner’s one-page dismissal of his lawsuit, Payne-Elliott challenged the trial court’s dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Indiana Trial Rule 12(B)(1).

He countered the ministerial exception by arguing the trial court erred because his claims did not implicate internal church governance, request the courts to resolve an ecclesiastical controversy or otherwise excessively entangle the courts with religion. The Archdiocese responded that in issuing the directive to Cathedral, it “act[ed] in accordance with ecclesiastical directive[,] deriving from canon law, which civil courts cannot review or question.”

The Court of Appeals cited to the amicus brief filed by Lambda Legal. The brief argued discovery was needed to determine whether the ministerial exception applied.

“Here, the parties have yet to undertake the requisite ‘fact-sensitive and claim specific’ analysis that must precede analysis of whether the First Amendment bars Payne-Elliott’s claims against the Archdiocese,” Judge Elizabeth Tavitas wrote for the court. “For instance, do genuine issues of material fact exist regarding: (1) whether Payne-Elliott’s job duties as a teacher at an Archdiocese-affiliated school rendered him a ‘minister’; or (2) the applicability of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine? At this juncture, discovery in this matter is ongoing, and we find that this matter is well shy of being ripe for summary disposition.”

Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel for Becket, the religious rights law firm that is representing the Archdiocese, said precedent supports the stance of the Indianapolis Catholic Church.

“The (U.S.) Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the constitutional right of Catholic schools to hire teachers who fully support the schools’ Catholic mission,” Goodrich said in a statement. “Today’s ruling doesn’t address this core issue, and we’re confident that when the courts finally do, they will respect this fundamental right. If the First Amendment means anything, it means the Catholic Church can ask Catholic school teachers to support Church teaching.”

Kathleen DeLaney of DeLaney & DeLaney, who is representing Payne-Elliott, maintained the Catholic Church does not have unlimited power over its employees.

“We are pleased with the Court of Appeals’ ruling today, which is a welcome victory for Joshua Payne-Elliott and all teachers in religious schools,” DeLaney said in a statement. “Teachers do not leave their constitutional rights at the door when they devote themselves to teaching students in Catholic schools.”

The Court of Appeals also held that because the Archdiocese attached “matters outside the pleading that were presented to and not excluded by the court,” the trial court was compelled by Trial Rule 12(B) to regard the Archdiocese’s motion to dismiss as a motion for summary judgment.

Yet even if the lower court had properly treated the Archdiocese’s motion as a motion to dismiss, the Court of Appeals concluded the trial court still erred in dismissing Payne-Elliott’s complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to Trial Rule 12(B)(6).

The appellate panel found Payne-Elliott met Trial Rule 8’s pleading standard in his complaint against the Archdiocese for intentional interference with a contract and intentional interference with an employment relationship.

In part, Payne-Elliott alleged the Archdiocese issued a directive wherein Cathedral was required to not only adopt and enforce the morals clause language but also fire any teacher in a public, same-sex marriage. Moreover, Cathedral would forfeit being formally recognized as a Catholic school in the Archdiocese by failing to comply with the directive. Cathedral subsequently terminated Payne-Elliott’s employment.

Citing Bellwether Props., LLC v. Duke Energy Indiana, Inc., 87 N.E.3d 462, 466 (Ind. 2017), the Court of Appeals noted a motion to dismiss under 12(B)(6) “tests the legal sufficiency of the [plaintiff’s] claim, not the facts supporting it.”

Payne-Elliott had raised only the first two issues in his appeal. The Court of Appeals on its own addressed whether the trial court erred in dismissing the case with prejudice.

As the appellate panel explained, when the trial court dismissed Payne-Elliott’s claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, this meant the court lacked the power to reach the merits. Yet in also dismissing the claims with prejudice, the trial court was adjudicating the case on the merits.

“Because dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction cannot be ‘with prejudice,’ the trial court’s entry of dismissal with prejudice was improper,” Tavitas wrote, referencing Hart v. Webster, 894 N.E.2d 1032, 1037 (Ind. Ct. App. 2008) (citing Perry v. Stitzer Buick GMC, Inc., 637 N.E. 2d 1282, 1286 (Ind. 1994)).

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