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Tucker v. Faith Bible Chapel International.

No. 20-1230. D.Colo. Judge Ebel. Title VII Race Discrimination Claim—Religious Employer—Finality Requirement—Collateral Order Doctrine—Ministerial Exception Defense—Summary Judgment.

June 7, 2022

Plaintiff was employed as a high school teacher with defendant. He was later hired for the additional job of chaplain, and subsequently was assigned the additional task of planning the school’s weekly chapel meetings. Plaintiff held a symposium on race and faith at a chapel meeting that was not well received by some parents and students. After being relieved of his non-teaching duties, plaintiff’s employment was terminated.

Plaintiff received a right-to-sue letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and brought a claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, alleging that the school fired him in retaliation for opposing a racially hostile environment, and a Colorado common law claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. Defendant filed a Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss in which it asserted the “ministerial exception” affirmative defense. The district court converted this to a motion for summary judgment. The court then allowed limited discovery only on whether defendant is a religious employer entitled to assert the ministerial exception and whether plaintiff qualified as a minister. The court ruled that while defendant could assert the ministerial exception, whether plaintiff was a minister was genuinely disputed on the evidence presented. It denied summary judgment.

Defendant filed this interlocutory appeal seeking to invoke the Tenth Circuit’s jurisdiction under the collateral order doctrine. Defendant argued that its appeal is justified because the ministerial exception not only protects religious employers from liability on a minister’s employment discrimination claims but also immunizes religious employers altogether from even having to litigate such claims. It then analogized the district court’s decision to deny it summary judgment on its ministerial exception defense to immediately appealable decisions to deny government officials qualified immunity from suit under 42 USC § 1983. The collateral order doctrine permits a narrow exception to the standard 28 USC § 1291 requirement that only appeals taken from final judgments entered at the end of litigation may be reviewed. Under the collateral order doctrine, to be immediately appealable, an interlocutory order must (1) conclusively determine the disputed question, (2) resolve an important issue completely separate from the merits of the action, and (3) be effectively unreviewable on appeal from a final judgment. Immediate appeals under this doctrine are disfavored, and when the order being appealed involves whether genuinely disputed facts exist, the benefit of an immediate appeal is likely outweighed by the cost of disrupting the ordinary course of litigation.

Here, defendant met the second prong of the collateral order test because decisions denying a religious employer summary judgment on the ministerial exception present an important First Amendment issue. Defendant did not meet the third requirement that the order be effectively unreviewable, because the ministerial exception is an affirmative defense rather than a jurisdictional bar from suit. Thus, any error a district court makes in failing to apply an affirmative defense foreclosing liability can be reviewed and corrected after final judgment has been entered in the case. Further, unlike the ministerial exception, the US Supreme Court has explicitly recognized that qualified immunity protects government officials not only from liability, but also from the burdens of litigation itself, so defendant’s analogy to qualified immunity is inaccurate. In addition, because the determination of whether an employee is a minister involves a fact-intensive inquiry, the denial of summary judgment on that issue because there are material factual disputes does not justify an immediate appeal under the collateral order doctrine.

Lastly, because defendant failed to establish the third prong, the Tenth Circuit did not address whether the first prong of the collateral order doctrine was satisfied, though it noted that this requirement cannot be met because the summary judgment ruling did not conclusively determine the disputed question of plaintiff’s ministerial status.

The appeal was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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