The 10th District Court of Appeals last week affirmed the dismissal of a case brought by a student against the Pontifical College Josephinum pursuant to the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.
A three-judge appellate panel side with the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas in its ruling that the courts lack jurisdiction in the case brought by John Doe, an unidentified student at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington.
The student asserted claims for breach of contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, unauthorized disclosure of confidential educational records and unjust enrichment and sought an award of attorney fees for bad-faith conduct.
According to a summary of the case, John Doe was a student at the Josephinum in a program designed to prepare students for careers as priests in the Roman Catholic Church.
Court documents state that he was scheduled to graduate in May 2016 with a master’s degree in theology.
Doe alleged that, in October 2015, he met with the Rector and Vice Rector of the college and was informed that he had been dismissed from the Josephinum as a result of an investigation that found that there was “a credible accusation of homosexual activity.”
After he was expelled, Doe asserted that he had requested access to his academic file, including any disciplinary records, but the Josephinum did not provide any records related to the alleged misconduct or his dismissal.
He also appealed his dismissal from the college under canon law, but was unable to present a credible defense because he lacked the records relating to his dismissal.
After the student filed suit in the common pleas court, the Josephinum moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the determination of the claims would require the court to inquire into an ecclesiastical disciplinary process, which is barred by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.
The common pleas court agreed, ruling that it would be impossible to consider the student’s claims relating to his academic file without also considering his allegation of improper dismissal from the college.
On appeal, Doe argued that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine does not apply to the claims presented in his complaint and do not require the court to review the school’s decision to dismiss him.
“Appellant argues that his breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and bad-faith conduct claims are based on civil contract law and would not require the trial court to resolve any issues related to his dismissal from the Josephinum,” Presiding Judge Gary Tyack wrote on behalf of the appellate court. “He further argues that his claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress and unauthorized disclosure of educational records arise from civil tort law and likewise would not require consideration of ecclesiastical issues.”
The court of appeals held that, despite Doe’s arguments, “it is clear that the alleged unjust dismissal lies at the core of each claim.”
“Therefore, evaluating those claims would require the common pleas court to consider issues related to the Josephinum’s disciplinary process and the dismissal,” Tyack wrote.
Citing court precedent, the appellate panel held that civil courts lack jurisdiction in cases that implicate the church’s internal disciplinary proceedings.
In a concurring opinion, Judge Jennifer Brunner wrote that students have the right to access their educational records under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974.
“The record strongly suggests the college is bound by the requirements of FERPA,” Brunner wrote. “Based on the plain language of the statute, the consequence for failing to recognize FERPA rights is the denial of federal funds, not exposure to private suit.”
If Doe wanted to challenge the school’s record withholding, he could have done so by filing a complaint with Family Policy Compliance Office regarding an alleged violation under FERPA, according to Brunner.
But she also noted that Doe’s complaint exceeded the scope of action to obtain records owed to him under FERPA because he extended his breach of contract damages to include his expulsion.
“The trial court had no recourse but to decline jurisdiction on First Amendment grounds; it was unable to consider the decision to expel appellant from the college,” Brunner wrote. “That decision (whether to retain a student at a Catholic school for training priests) was the quintessential ‘who should preach from the pulpit’ decision and not a matter in which the secular sovereign should interfere.”
Judge Betsy Luper Schuster joined Brunner and Tyack to unanimously affirm the judgment of the lower court.
The case is cited Doe v. Pontifical College Josephinum, 2017-Ohio-1172.