Thursday, May 05, 2011

St. James Newport Beach wins ruling from the California Supreme Court for its day in court

via email:

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – May 5, 2011 – The California Supreme Court today held that St. James Anglican Church can defend its property rights against the claims of the Episcopal Church with evidence in a court of law.  The Court confirmed that its 2009 Episcopal Church Cases decision did not end the property dispute in the Episcopal Church’s favor as it had claimed.  “Further proceedings are still necessary to finally decide the dispute,” said the Court.

Today’s decision, titled Rasmussen v. Superior Court (Bunyan), returns the case to the Orange County Superior Court where St. James will now have the right to defend itself with evidence before a court of law, including having motions heard to dismiss church volunteers who have been sued by the Episcopal Church.

Eric Sohlgren, St. James’s lead attorney, said, “St. James has been vindicated.  The California Supreme Court has soundly rejected the idea that its prior decision required the people of St. James to move off the property they built and paid for over many decades.  St. James will, at last, get its deserved day in court to present evidence showing that it has the legal right to the property.”

In upholding St. James’s right to put on its defense, the California Supreme Court rejected an argument of the Episcopal Church that a 1991 letter issued by a bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles – which promised St. James that it could hold its property free of any Episcopal interest – had been declared invalid by the 2009 opinion.  The Court said, “We express no opinion regarding the legal significance, if any, of the 1991 letter.  We merely hold that a court must decide the question.”

St. James senior pastor, the Rev. Richard Crocker, said, “I’m thankful and grateful for this opinion.  We are looking forward to having our day in court.”

Before St. James had the opportunity to present its evidence, the Orange County Superior Court ruled in 2005 (see case summary, below) that the Episcopal Church’s allegations were legally defective.  After the trial court dismissed the Episcopal complaints, the appellate courts took years to decide what law should apply to the dispute, eventually ruling that the Episcopal complaints could go forward.

In early 2009, the California Supreme Court sent the case back to the Orange County Superior Court, where St. James for the first time answered the Episcopal complaints, raised affirmative defenses, began discovery, and looked forward to defending the property that its members bought, paid for and maintained since its founding six decades ago.  In its 2010 opinion, the Court of Appeal majority essentially ruled that St. James could not defend itself, and that the Episcopal Church was entitled to judgment in their favor based on their allegations alone.  Today’s decision from the California Supreme Court rejects that unprecedented result.

The Episcopal lawsuits against St. James stemmed from a decision by the members of St. James Church in August 2004 to align themselves with another branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and end the church’s affiliation with the Episcopal Church over core theological differences involving the authority of the Bible and Jesus Christ.  The Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles sued St. James Church, All Saints Church, Long Beach, CA, and St. David’s Church, No. Hollywood, CA, and over two dozen volunteer board members in September 2004, including for monetary damages.  Subsequently, the national Episcopal Church intervened into the lawsuits. 

St. James Anglican Church continues to hold services every Sunday at its Newport Beach location as it has for the past six decades.

The California Supreme Court decision may be found here:

A Brief Recap:  St. James Anglican Church’s Fight to Keep its Property

In August 2004 St. James Church ended its affiliation with the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and the Episcopal Church over theological differences involving the authority of Holy Scripture and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles brought lawsuits against St. James Church, All Saints Church, Long Beach, CA, and St. David’s Church, No. Hollywood, CA, and their volunteer board members in September of 2004. Subsequently, the national Episcopal Church intervened into the lawsuits against the three local church corporations and their volunteer board members.

In August 2005 the Honorable David C. Velasquez of the Orange County Superior Court ruled in favor of St. James Church and struck the complaint brought by the Diocese of Los Angeles. In October 2005 Judge Velasquez issued a similar ruling in favor of All Saints and St. David’s Churches. These early victories arose from early challenges to the Episcopal allegations made by the Diocese and the Episcopal Church, and as a result, no trial ever occurred and St. James never had an opportunity to defend those claims on the merits.  The Episcopalians then appealed to the California Court of Appeal sitting in Orange County on this very limited court record, arguing that under neutral principles of law they had a probability of prevailing and had alleged legally viable claims.

In July 2007 the Court of Appeal rejected nearly thirty years of California church property law by ruling that a secular court must defer to the determinations of the highest level of the church hierarchy regarding ownership of local church property, regardless of any agreements between the parties, the corporate documents, who paid for the property, or who held the deed. The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court judgment in favor of St. James, and ordered the case back to the trial court.

In August 2007 St. James filed a petition with the California Supreme Court, which the Court unanimously and quickly accepted under the name of Episcopal Church Cases. The Court heard oral argument in the case in October 2008.

In January 2009 the California Supreme Court ruled in Episcopal Church Cases that church property disputes in California must be resolved by neutral or non-religious principles of law, not by civil courts merely deferring to the decrees of church “hierarchies” or larger church bodies. As a result, every church property dispute in California now will be resolved based on non-religious factors that are unique to the dispute. While adopting this non-religious method of resolving property disputes between churches, however, the Court seemed to defer to the Episcopal Church’s alleged “trust canon,” which purports to create a trust interest in church property owned by local congregations. The Court made its ruling despite the fact that St. James purchased and maintained its property with its own funds and has held clear record title to its property for over fifty years. St. James believes that this ruling overlooked decades of trust law in California that only allows the owner of property to create a trust in favor of someone else, and will as a result have wide impact for local church property owners throughout California that seek to change their religious affiliation.

In late January 2009 St. James formally asked the California Supreme Court to modify its January decision.

In February 2009 the California Supreme Court granted the St. James request, and modified its decision to confirm both that the suit against St. James is not over and that no decision on the merits of the case has yet been made. Instead, the Court clarified that its decision was only based on the limited record before it, which will now be augmented through the normal discovery and trial process.

In late February 2009, the case against St. James Church corporation, the volunteer board members, and clergy returned to the trial court in Orange County where St. James can assert factual and legal arguments that were not addressed on appeal through discovery, depositions, motions, and trial. Using the legal standard set forth by the California Supreme Court, the Orange County Superior Court will eventually decide the merits of this dispute. For example, St. James has brought a complaint against the Diocese of Los Angeles based on a 1991 written promise that it would not claim a trust over the property of St. James on 32nd Street in Newport Beach.

On June 24, 2009, St. James filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court. A response from the Court regarding its decision to hear St. James’s petition can be expected by October 2009. If the Court takes the case, a decision would be rendered by mid-2010.

On July 13, 2009, St. James Church won a significant legal battle in its property rights case in Orange County Superior Court when Judge Thierry P. Colaw denied two motions brought by the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and The Episcopal Church which sought to end the case in their favor.

In October 2009, the Supreme Court of the United States denied a petition by St. James to hear its church property rights battle with the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and the national Episcopal Church (TEC). 

In November 2009, St. James returned to the California Court of Appeal for a hearing to argue that the February 2009 opinion by the California Supreme Court stated that the case is not over and that the litigants will continue their case in Orange County Superior Court.  The Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and the national Episcopal Church (TEC) argued that the California Supreme Court decided the lawsuit in its favor and demanded that the church turn the property over to the Diocese.

In March 2010, two justices of the California Court of Appeal essentially ruled that St. James did not have the right to defend itself in court, conduct discovery or even have a trial, and that the Episcopal allegations alone were enough for St. James to lose its property.  Dissenting Justice Fybel said that the majority’s opinion was “unprecedented,” “revolutionary” and “without any basis in law.”

In May 2010, St. James petitioned the California Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeal’s majority opinion. 

In June 2010, the California Supreme Court unanimously agreed to hear the St. James petition, ordering briefing and argument on this one issue:  “Did the Court of Appeal properly direct the entry of judgment on the pleadings in favor of the national Episcopal Church under Episcopal Church Cases (2009) 45 Cal.4th 467?”

On May 5, 2011, the California Supreme Court held that its prior 2009 decision in Episcopal Church Cases did not end the property dispute, but that St. James now has the right to defend itself in court with evidence.


Kevin said...


Anonymous said...

That opinion wouldn't give me a lot of hope if I were a congregant. It reads more like a "when, not if" type decision, and against the congregation.

BabyBlue said...

Anon, can you be more specific - why do you think that? Please specify why you have come to this conclusion (and are not the lawyers who bringing the case against St. James). In these transitory times, you would do well to make your case. That's a lovely opening sentence, but that's all that it is.

Again, if you are a guest anon and want to make a case, please do so - you are welcome to do so. But if you make such unsubstantiated comments, you come across as a troll throwing their lunch and that does not exactly help one's case, now does it? Hagrid has taking to complaining to management about "Lunch Trolls."

In this new Facebook Era, Hagrid is getting less patient with guests throwing their food. We aim to be inclusive here and kindness is appreciated, right Hagrid?


Hagrid said...

Aye, that is true.

Anonymous said...

I thought the 1757 comment was fairly innocuous. Perhaps what anon was conveying is that this is very much a procedural decision based on the state Supreme Court's conclusion that the matter could not be disposed of in its entirety on the rather unusual device of a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. There is no signal from the SCt. that the underlying law would favor the departing group (In California it clearly doesn't, at least at this point in history). So I took the comment to mean that both sides have clearly been consigned by the high state court to more process, but that a not implausible result is that the outcome will be exactly the same, but many months and many dollars down the road. Of course, it is possible that some smart, reasonable people, accustomed to thinking with their heads, will intervene and find another solution to save both sides continued waste.


Carolyn said...

Why did I instinctively know that Scout would vouch for Anon's comment? Is it because Scout is ALWAYS in favor of the Diocese vs the parish (and if necessary the rump diocese vs the real diocese)?

Anonymous said...

Actually, Carolyn, I don't even know what a "rump" diocese is. Is it like a rump roast? But, you're quite incorrect to assume that I would always take the side of a Diocese against a parish. I know of several examples where I have opposed diocesan actions and felt they have been unnecessarily insensitive to legitimate parish concerns.

If you are looking for a unifying theme to my feelings on these property disputes, it would be more accurate to characterize it along these lines: I do not understand where, in the governing documents of the Church, lies the right of a person or persons who depart for another denomination to take property with them. Conversely, I do not understand why, as a matter of legality, ethics or morals, a person or persons who depart a church for another affiliation can take things away from people who stay. That's it.

In the context of the instant post, however, my comment would be the same even if I had quite different views: this was a procedural ruling and anon1757's point seemed rather neutral = there could be a lot more process and still the same result.


Carolyn said...

Yeah, like a rump roast, but not as tasty.
(See. I can speak Stupid, too.)

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I fear that Carolyn doesn't like me nearly as much as I like her. I'm sure she's much nicer to other people.

But, I would be interested in her views on the substantive part of my comment.


Anonymous said...

it's great that the picture has a super-expensive, luxury SUV in it...... very Newport Beach.....

Carolyn said...

I am extremely nice to honest people.

RWK said...

Scout, we can split this hair one hundred ways, but for the sake of argument, if the Bishop had signed a letter saying the Diocese had no claim on the property would you oppose St. James leaving with the property? The Bishop is a member of the hierarchy of a hierarchical church.

Anonymous said...

Carolyn has evolved from suggesting that I am stupid to saying that I am dishonest. BB and her friend Hagrid will no doubt take heated offense. Until they intervene, however, I can only lamely defend my intelligence, given that a lot of folks are much smarter than I, some so much so that I could be said to be stupid by comparison. Carolyn may be one of these people. I just don't know her other than her comments here, and therefore can't concede the point. On the personal integrity front, I am certain that Carolyn has no basis on which to impugn my character or reputation for veracity.

RWK- My comments on these property disputes have been largely generic and applicable to any situation where a parishioner or a group of parishioners decides to leave for another affiliation or even another religion. However, to address your question fairly, yes, I think it would be very possible for a Diocese, acting through its Bishop in accord with the governing instruments of the Church and the Diocese, to approve a property transfer. If this happened at St. James, I do not apprehend why there is litigation. My surmise is that it did not happen. If you are suggesting that something less conclusive was communicated, my thought would be that it might be admissible in an evidentiary sense, but not in itself controlling of property rights.


Carolyn said...

Scout: "I am certain that Carolyn has no basis on which to impugn my character or reputation for veracity."

Scout: "Actually, Carolyn, I don't even know what a "rump" diocese is."

You frequently feign ignorance of topics and terminology that are very common in the blogs where I have seen your postings. That's my basis. If you could converse openly and honestly I probably wouldn't be quite so irritated. But that's OK. We will agree to disagree.

Steven in Falls Church said...

Carolyn -- While I don't know Scout, and don't agree with him (or her) on the Current Anglican Unpleasantness, I have found him (or her) willing to converse honestly, as well as respectfully and knowledgeably. Hagrid must be lying drunk in his cottage.

Carolyn said...

Steven, my experience has been different, as explained my previous post.

(OT - for some reason I thought Hagrid was a woman)

Anonymous said...

Carolyn: I think what you regard as dishonesty or moral turpitude is nothing more than my mild-mannered aversion to gratuitous pejorative language. When you use the term "rump diocese" it is not a particularly informative descriptor. How does a Diocese become a "rump" diocese? In California, for example, there are many dioceses in many denominations. How do we know the rump from the real? Is it possible that there are simply several dioceses and that the name-calling doesn't advance the discussion? In Virginia we have at least two Anglican dioceses. Does one have to be a "rump" diocese? I don't think so. I see a lot of this kind of thing thrown around on blogs. It is a commenter's right (up to the point of the blog host's tolerance) to use that kind of language, but I find it meaningless and generally indicative of spleen more than the fair exchange of opinions.

And, of course, thank you, Steven, for your fairness. That we disagree on church property dispute issues should not obscure the happy fact that we agree on many other things.


Anonymous said...

Anonymous comments saying the congregation is going to lose get threats of "Hagrid."

Yet a string of insults calling a regular contributer stupid and a liar are tolerated.

Hypocrisy does not wear well.

Anonymous said...

Of course, Scout disagrees with the positions on this blog regularly.

I guess that makes it ok.

Anonymous said...

I think my point about the use of pejoratives like "rump" diocese (and I truly do not know what makes a particular diocese "rump" other than that it is one someone doesn't like)is that these dioceses have names and putting a silly naughty word in front of it is gratuitously derogatory. We have more than one Anglican diocese in Northern Virginia, and I can't see why either has to be a "rump" diocese. Same could be said in Texas, California, or Pittsburgh.

And thank you, Steven, for your fairness. Other than the underlying principles in these unhappy church property dispute, I suspect that there is very little upon which we disagree.


Anonymous said...

Sorry for the duplicative comments. One of them got hung up in the e-ether for several days. So I submitted a similar one to replace it. Now, the first one has reappeared.