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Hough v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Erie

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 4, 2014

ELAINE HOUGH, MARLENE MISAVAGE, and GAIL SMITH, Plaintiffs,
v.
ROMAN CATHOLIC DIOCESE OF ERIE, and SHENANGO VALLEY CATHOLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER[1]

SUSAN PARADISE BAXTER, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiffs filed this civil action under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and Pennsylvania Human Relations Act on October 18, 2012. Plaintiffs Elaine Hough, Marlene Misavage, and Gail Smith allege that they are former employees of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Erie who were discriminated against on the basis of their age.

According to the Amended Complaint, each of the three Plaintiffs was employed for over 30 years by the Diocese and was a teacher in the Notre Dame School at the end of the 2010-2011 school year. At that time, the Diocese announced that Notre Dame School and two other Catholic schools in the Shenango Valley area were closing, and Shenango Valley Catholic School System was being formed. Each of the three Plaintiffs was invited to apply and interview for positions within the newly consolidated school system. Each did so and each was not rehired. Instead, it is alleged that Defendants hired less qualified and significantly younger persons.

Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) and/or for summary judgment under Rule 56, arguing that the ADEA claims are subject to the ministerial exception as set forth in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, ___ U.S. ___ , 132 S.Ct. 694 (2012). ECF No. 8. Plaintiffs have filed a brief in opposition. ECF No. 13. There has been no discovery in this case. This Court heard oral argument on the motion on January 22, 2014. These issues are ripe for disposition by this Court.

Because the parties have submitted affidavits both in support of and in opposition to the pending motion, this Court will treat the motion as a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. See Burns v. Harris County Bail Bond Bd. , 139 F.3d 513, 517 (5th Cir.1998) ("When matters outside the pleadings are presented to and not excluded by the district court, the district court must convert a motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment."); Greer v. Smith , 2003 WL 1090708, *1 (3d Cir. (Pa.) March 10, 2003) ("the District Court considered material outside of the pleadings and, therefore, should have converted the motion for dismissal to a summary judgment motion, allowing the plaintiff an opportunity for appropriate discovery and a reasonable opportunity to present all material made pertinent to the motion.").

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) provides that summary judgment shall be granted if the "movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." The moving party has the initial burden of proving to the district court the absence of evidence supporting the non-moving party's claims. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 330 (1986); Andreoli v. Gates , 482 F.3d 641, 647 (3d Cir. 2007); UPMC Health System v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. , 391 F.3d 497, 502 (3d Cir. 2004).

The burden then shifts to the non-movant to come forward with specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); Williams v. Borough of West Chester, Pa. , 891 F.2d 458, 460-461 (3d Cir. 1989)(the non-movant must present affirmative evidence - more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance - which supports each element of his claim to defeat a properly presented motion for summary judgment). The non-moving party must go beyond the pleadings and show specific facts by affidavit or by information contained in the filed documents (i.e., depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions) to meet his burden of proving elements essential to his claim. Celotex , 477 U.S. at 322. See also Saldana v. Kmart Corp. , 260 F.3d 228, 232 (3d Cir. 2001). The non-moving party "must present more than just bare assertions, conclusory allegations or suspicions to show the existence of a genuine issue." Garcia v. Kimmell , 2010 WL 2089639, at * 1 (3d Cir. 2010) quoting Podobnik v. U.S. Postal Serv. , 409 F.3d 584, 594 (3d Cir. 2005).

When considering a motion for summary judgment, the court is not permitted to weigh the evidence or to make credibility determinations, but is limited to deciding whether there are any disputed issues and, if there are, whether they are both genuine and material.[2] Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). The court must consider the evidence, and all reasonable inferences which may be drawn from it, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp. , 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). See also El v. SEPTA , 479 F.3d 232, 238 (3d Cir. 2007).

Defendants move for summary judgment on the sole basis that Plaintiffs' ADEA claims are subject to the ministerial exception as set forth by the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, ___ U.S. ___ , 132 S.Ct. 694 (2012). The ministerial exception arises from the conflict between federal employment discrimination statutes and constitutional principles of church autonomy guaranteed by the First Amendment's Religion Clauses. The Circuit Courts of Appeal, including the Third Circuit, have long recognized the "ministerial exception" in employment discrimination cases.[3] See Petruska v. Gannon University , 462 F.3d 294 (3d Cir. 2006). Grounded in the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, the ministerial exception precludes federal claims of employment discrimination brought by ministers against a religious institution.

The U.S. Supreme Court first considered the ministerial exception in Hosanna-Tabor formally recognizing this exception to employment discrimination statutes. 132 S.Ct. 694. The Court determined that the exception "precludes application of such legislation to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers" (id. at 705) and further opined that:

"By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group's right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments. According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions."

Id. at 706.[4]

The Hosanna-Tabor Court declined to "adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister" noting that its ruling was limited to the specific facts of the case. Id . at 707 ("It is enough for us to conclude, in this our first case involving the ministerial exception, that the exception covers Perich, given all the circumstances of her employment."). Of course, the ruling that Cheryl Perich's position as a "called" teacher barred a discrimination suit against the church that terminated her employment may be analyzed for factors used by the high court to make this determination.

This is precisely what the district court did in Dias v. Archdiocese of Cincinnati , 2012 WL 1068165 (S.D.Ohio ...


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