Roncalli, archdiocese lose bid to limit discovery in fired counselor’s discrimination suit

The Indianapolis Archdiocese and an affiliated high school have once again lost a bid to limit discovery in a fired employee’s same-sex discrimination lawsuit to the question of whether the plaintiff’s claims fall under the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception.”

Magistrate Judge Tim Baker of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana on Wednesday denied the motion to bifurcate filed by the archdiocese and Roncalli High School. The Catholic institutions are being sued by Shelly Fitzgerald, a former Roncalli counselor who was fired after her same-sex marriage came to light.

The Indianapolis Archdiocese and the school are also being sued by Lynn Starkey, the former co-director of counseling at Roncalli who was also terminated because of her same-sex marriage.  Baker looked to Starkey’s case  when denying the motion to bifurcate in Fitzgerald’s.

“While a different case with slightly different facts, the parties raise nearly identical arguments as those raised in Starkey,” Baker wrote Wednesday. “The result remains the same: though the question of whether to order bifurcation is a close call and within the Court’s discretion, this litigation will proceed most expeditiously by moving forward with full discovery.”

The defendants had urged the court to limit discovery to the question of whether Fitzgerald was performing ministerial duties for the high school. If so, they argued, the ministerial exception would be dispositive of all claims. Additionally, they claimed “bifurcation would avoid prejudice to Defendants’ constitutional rights, prevent the Court from becoming entangled in religious questions, and expedite the litigation.”

The defendants had also asked Baker to stay Fitzgerald’s case pending a United States Supreme Court ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, the landmark LGBT ruling handed down Monday. That ruling holds that Title VII prohibits discrimination solely based on being gay or transgender.

“This Court denied Defendant’s motion to stay when Bostock was still pending and noted that the motion ‘mirrors a motion to stay filed in a strikingly similar case, Starkey,’” Baker wrote. “Now, the Court is once again denying Defendants’ motion to limit discovery.”

In opposition to the limitation of discovery, Fitzgerald argued that application of the ministerial exception was “hotly contested, and unlikely to resolve on upon summary judgment.” Additionally, she noted she has not brought a religious discrimination claim.

Baker agreed with the former argument, writing, “As noted in Starkey, whether Fitzgerald’s role can be considered ministerial is a fact-intensive question usually left for a jury.  … Defendants and Fitzgerald paint Fitzgerald’s job duties in two different lights, making it difficult to conclude at this stage whether the ministerial exception may apply.

“… While once again a close question, the Court exercises its discretion by denying Defendants’ motion to bifurcate discovery. Defendants shall respond to Fitzgerald’s outstanding discovery requests within 14 days of this order.”

In addition to the former Roncalli employees, the Indianapolis Archdiocese is also facing a lawsuit from Joshua-Payne Elliott, a former teacher at Cathedral High School who was fired for being in a same-sex marriage.

Fitzgerald’s case is Michell Fitzgerald v. Roncalli High School, Inc., Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Inc., 1:19-cv-04291.

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