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Connor v. Archdiocese of Philadelphia

July 20, 2009


Appeal from the Order of the Superior Court entered on August 16, 2007, at 2666 EDA 2005, affirming the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County entered on September 7, 2005, at 0763 March Term, 2005 933 A.2d 92 (Pa. Super. 2007).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Chief Justice Castille


ARGUED: April 14, 2009


The single issue presented in the instant case is whether the civil courts of this Commonwealth have subject-matter jurisdiction over a tort suit alleging defamation and negligent infliction of emotional distress arising out of a parochial school's expulsion of a student for allegedly bringing a weapon to school, and the school's communication of the expulsion to the school community. Citing the long-standing common-law precept known as the deference rule, according to which civil courts decline to exercise jurisdiction over cases that would require them to decide ecclesiastical questions, the lower courts held that they lacked jurisdiction over the instant case. For the reasons that follow, we hold that the lower courts erred in finding that the deference rule applies here, and we therefore reverse and remand the matter to the trial court for proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

Because this Court sits in review of the trial court's grant of preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer, the salient facts are derived solely from the complaint. Bilt-Rite Contractors, Inc. v. The Architectural Studio, 866 A.2d 270, 272 (Pa. 2005). Pursuant to this standard of review, we accept as true "all well-pleaded material facts set forth in the complaint and all inferences fairly deducible from those facts." Krentz v. Consol. Rail Corp., 910 A.2d 20, 26 (Pa. 2006) (internal quotation marks omitted).*fn1 As derived from the allegations in the complaint sub judice, the salient facts are as follows.

In March 2004, Eric Connor was a twelve-year-old seventh-grade student at St. Eleanor's School ("St. Eleanor's" or "the School"), a Roman Catholic elementary school located in Collegeville, Montgomery County, and operated by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia ("Archdiocese"). After being assigned to read THE OUTSIDERS, a novel that "glorifies gang fights," the seventh-grade boys developed "a significant interest in knives and weapons." Complaint ¶¶ 14, 19 (filed Apr. 7, 2005). Several boys began bringing their Boy Scout knives to school and showing them off to their classmates.

In the week of March 8, 2004, the sixth and seventh grade boys were engaged in a running feud between the two grades -- which historically did not get along -- carried out in the schoolyard at recess. On Tuesday, March 9th, after Eric Connor got into a shoving match with a sixth grader, the sixth and seventh grade boys planned a "rumble" for the next day at recess. Id. ¶ 21. On the way home from school on Wednesday, March 10th,*fn2 Eric told a classmate that he planned to bring to school the next day "a miniature 'thing' that could [do] no damage but would be a good bluff." Id. ¶ 24.

On Thursday, March 11th, after a classmate of Eric's spoke to St. Eleanor's Principal Sister Mary Marie Heenan ("Sister Marie") in her office, Sister Marie called Eric to her office and asked him to turn over a penknife that she believed he possessed. Eric denied that he had a knife but produced a manicure set containing "a two-inch nail file along with scissors and letter opener." Id. ¶ 33. Soon thereafter, Sister Marie telephoned Eric's mother, Kimberly Connor, and informed her that Eric had brought a "weapon" to school and was being expelled. Id. ¶ 29. The next day, the Reverend Patrick Sweeney ("Father Sweeney"), the pastor of St. Eleanor Parish, sent a letter to Eric's parents, informing them that, pursuant to the Parent/Student Handbook of the School, Eric had been expelled for bringing a penknife to school. Exhibit A to Complaint ("Expulsion Letter"); Reproduced Record ("R.R.") at 32a. The Expulsion Letter was shown to "the person who typed it and to various individuals in the school community."

Complaint ¶ 70.

On Wednesday, March 17th, all parents and guardians of St. Eleanor's students were sent a letter signed by, inter alia, Father Sweeney and Sister Marie. Exhibit C to Complaint ("Information Letter"); R.R. at 34a-35a. The Information Letter related that, on March 11th, Sister Marie received several tips from concerned parents that knives were being brought to school that day. Thereafter, according to the letter, a "specific student . . . was found to have a penknife in his possession"; Father Sweeney confirmed the existence of the penknife; and "[t]his student" was expelled from the School. R.R. at 34a.*fn3 The letter continued by describing further actions that had been taken to defuse tensions at the School and concluded as follows:

After you have read this, do you have any further suggestions or ideas for us that will help improve the relationships among all of us[:] parents, teachers, staff, and students?

We suggest to you the following:

- Do not fall prey to idle gossip and rumors. If you need more information, call the school. If your call is not returned, call again.

- Speak to your child/ren individually[.] [A]s you well know when children are with others their behavior may not reflect what you have taught them. Name-calling and disrespect are learned and imitated behaviors. Remind your child/ren how you expect them to act and how to treat others with respect.

- Am I speaking in front of my children about topics which should only be spoken about in front of adults?

- Have you taught them to be tolerant of others who are different and that a person who may seem different is also a creature of God?

- Have you reviewed the golden rule recently?

We all need to step back during this time and examine our own consciences first[.] We know that we have a plank in our own eyes[,] so I can barely see in order to remove the speck from yours. This is first and foremost a Catholic School and we are Catholics who are called at all times to love God and to respect our neighbor. If each one of us were to arise tomorrow before God what would he say of us, whether parent or teacher or principal[?] We pray that God would be merciful with all of us.

God bless you and keep you[.] May God's light shine upon you and may God grant all of us His peace.

[/s] [/s]

Rev. Patrick Sweeney Rev. Andrew Brownholtz Pastor Parochial Vicar

[/s] [/s]

Sister Marie Heenan, RSM Mrs. Katherine Schmitt Principal Vice Principal

R.R. at 35a. Although the above Information Letter did not identify Eric by name, "everyone who saw the letter knew that it referred to Eric as having the pen knife."

Complaint ¶ 41.

In addition to sending the above letters, Father Sweeney and Sister Marie made an unspecified number of statements ("Oral Statements")*fn4 between March 11th and March 20th to various St. Eleanor's parents and students "indicating that Eric had been expelled for having a pen knife and implying that he presented a danger to the school and to the individuals in the school and to the community at large." Complaint ¶ 64. The following week, on March 24, 2004, Eric was enrolled in the local public school district.

On April 7, 2005, Eric's parents, Kimberly and Larry Connor (collectively, "appellants") filed an action in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County ("trial court") in their own right and on behalf of Eric against the Archdiocese, St. Eleanor's, Father Sweeney and Sister Marie (collectively, "appellees") seeking in excess of $50,000 in compensatory damages and $50,000 in punitive damages. In their complaint, appellants set forth a total of nine counts, four of which are based solely on Eric's expulsion. In particular, Counts I and II allege, respectively, breach of contract and violation of due process grounded in appellants' allegation that Father Sweeney and Sister Marie expelled Eric without sufficient investigation and without providing him with an opportunity to respond; and Counts VI and VII allege, respectively, negligent infliction of emotional distress ("IED") as to Kimberly Connor and intentional IED as to Eric grounded in similar allegations directly related to the decision to expel Eric.

Appellants' complaint also set forth two counts that are based on the Information Letter, the Expulsion Letter, and the Oral Statements (collectively, "Post-expulsion Communications" or "Communications"). Specifically, Count III alleges defamation, grounded primarily in the Oral Statements; and Count IV alleges defamation, grounded primarily in the Information Letter and the Expulsion Letter.*fn5

The remaining three counts of appellants' complaint are based on both Eric's expulsion and the Post-expulsion Communications: Count V alleges negligent IED as to Eric; Count VIII alleges respondeat superior liability on the part of the Archdiocese; and Count IX alleges respondeat superior liability on the part of St. Eleanor's.

On April 26, 2005, appellees filed preliminary objections pursuant to Pa.R.C.P. 1028 on the following grounds: (1) lack of subject-matter jurisdiction; (2) failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted and/or lack of specificity; and (3) failure to state a claim against the Archdiocese, Father Sweeney, or Sister Marie.*fn6 In alleging lack of subject- matter jurisdiction, appellees invoked the deference rule, according to which civil courts decline to exercise jurisdiction over cases that would require them to decide ecclesiastical questions. In particular, appellees cited Gaston v. Diocese of Allentown, 712 A.2d 757 (Pa. Super. 1998), which, relying on the deference rule, upheld the dismissal, for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, of negligent and intentional IED claims against a parochial school following the expulsion of a student. In support of their second preliminary objection, appellees offered, with respect to each of appellants' claims, one or more ways in which the pleadings were insufficient to warrant relief. Finally, appellees argued in their third preliminary objection that, to the extent that appellants could state any claim, the proper defendant was St. Eleanor Parish, which, according to appellees, had been incorrectly designated as St. Eleanor's School.

After hearing oral argument, on September 6, 2005, the trial court, per the Honorable Jacqueline F. Allen, sustained appellees' preliminary objections and dismissed appellants' complaint with prejudice. In one paragraph of analysis, the trial court reasoned in its Rule 1925(a)*fn7 opinion as follows:

The court finds that it is without subject matter jurisdiction. As drafted, plaintiffs' allegations require the court to determine whether the defendants acted "fairly and according to Catholic principles" with regard to the disciplinary measures employed. Such an endeavor would necessarily require an examination of Catholic principles. The Doctrinal Deference Rule prohibits Pennsylvania courts from such exploration.

Trial Ct. Op., 8/2/06, at 5 (citing Gaston, supra).

Appellants appealed to the Superior Court, abandoning the four counts based solely on Eric's expulsion -- namely, Counts I (breach of contract), II (due process violation), VI (negligent IED as to Kimberly Connor), and VII (intentional IED). In a published opinion authored by then-Judge, now Justice McCaffery, a three-judge panel of the Superior Court unanimously affirmed, citing the deference rule. Connor v. Archdiocese of Phila., 933 A.2d 92 (Pa. Super. 2007). The panel first quoted the Gaston court's articulation of the deference rule and its discussion of the rationale behind the rule. The panel then cited this Court's decision in In re Church of St. James the Less, 888 A.2d 795 (Pa. 2005), where we applied the "neutral principles of law approach," which allows civil courts, notwithstanding the deference rule, to exercise jurisdiction over cases involving religious institutions that can be decided based on secular legal authority. The panel proceeded to examine the facts and reasoning set forth in Gaston, concluding that that decision prohibits "the courts of this Commonwealth, under the guise of a tort action, [from] review[ing] a decision to expel a student from a parochial school." Connor, 933 A.2d at 98.

Acknowledging appellants' contention that Counts III, IV, and V (alleging defamation and negligent IED) were not grounded in their wrongful expulsion allegations, the panel held that the court lacked jurisdiction to consider any of appellants' claims. In this regard, the panel found that appellants' negligent IED claim as to Eric "is based directly upon Appellees' decision to expel Eric without cause." Id. at 98-99 (internal quotation marks omitted). The panel further observed that all three of appellants' non-abandoned claims "allege injury as a result of information disseminated wholly within the parish community." Id. at 99. Such a decision, the panel held:

by a religious organization to discuss the fact and import of an ecclesiastical disciplinary decision is, for purposes of the deference rule, no different than the imposition of the discipline itself. This Court would indeed be straying into "the sacred precincts" [Presbytery of Beaver-Butler of United Presbyterian Church in U.S.A. v. Middlesex Presbyterian Church, 489 A.2d 1317, 1321 (Pa. 1985)] if it determined that a religious organization would be subject to civil liability for communicating to its community the existence of a disciplinary decision made and imposed by the organization.

Connor, 933 A.2d at 99.

Although noting that review of decisions from other jurisdictions was unnecessary since Gaston and prior decisions of this Court provided sufficient guidance, the panel included in its opinion a discussion of several non-binding decisions cited by appellants as well as a brief explanation of the distinction of each case from the instant matter. See Connor, 933 A.2d at 100-01 & n.9 (discussing Bowie v. Murphy, 624 S.E.2d 74 (Va. 2006), Ausley v. Shaw, 193 S.W.3d 892 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2005), Guinn v. Church of Christ of Collinsville, 775 P.2d 766 (Okla. 1989), and Calvary Christian Sch., Inc. v. Huffstuttler, 238 S.W.3d 58 (Ark. 2006)).*fn8

In conclusion, the panel explained, appellants' defamation and negligent IED claims "essentially hinge upon judicial review of whether officials at a parochial school, in the course of their ecclesiastical disciplinary duties, correctly concluded that the object in Eric's possession, which admittedly contained two or more solid, pointed blade-like implements of at least two inches in length, was a ...

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