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Nolen v. The Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division

September 1, 2017

MARIA NOLEN, Plaintiff,
v.
THE DIOCESE OF BIRMINGHAM IN ALABAMA, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ABDUL K. KALLON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This case arises out of a dispute between Maria Nolen, the former principal of St. Ann Catholic School (“St. Ann”), a small catholic grammar school located in Decatur, Alabama, and her previous employer, the Diocese of Birmingham (the “Diocese”), an administrative body that controls the operations of the Roman Catholic Church in much of the state. Doc. 36 at 2; Doc. 48 at 1.[1] Nolen alleges that St. Ann and its employees discriminated against Hispanic students, and that the Diocese discharged her in retaliation for her attempts to stop these practices, a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Id. at 9. Nolen also raises three related state law claims: breach of contract; intentional interference with a contract; and defamation per se. Id. at 11-14. The Diocese has filed a motion for summary judgment on all of Nolen's claims, and that motion is now ripe for review.[2] Based on a thorough review of the law and evidence, the court finds that summary judgment in favor of the Diocese is due to be granted on Nolen's § 1981 claim, the only claim over which this court has original jurisdiction, as well as on her breach of contract claim. In light of this ruling, the court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Nolen's remaining state law claims and dismisses those claims without prejudice.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary judgment is properly 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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A dispute about a material fact is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         “The evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [her] favor.” Id. at 255. However, “mere conclusions and unsupported factual allegations are legally insufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion.” Ellis v. England, 432 F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam). “[A] . . . ‘scintilla of evidence in support of the nonmoving party will not suffice to overcome a motion for summary judgment.'” Melton v. Abston, 841 F.3d 1207, 1219 (11th Cir. 2016) (quoting Young v. City of Palm Bay, 358 F.3d 859, 860 (11th Cir. 2004)).

         III. FACTS

         The Diocese hired Nolen in July of 2012 to serve as St. Ann's principal. Doc. 48 at 1; Doc. 36 at 2. As part of her hiring, Nolen signed a one year renewable contract providing that she could be discharged only for cause. Doc. 36-1 at 1.[3] The contract also bound Nolen to observe the policies of the “Diocesan Catholic School Board, ” and notified her that she was considered “a representative of the Diocese.” Id. In her role as principal, Nolen “made most employment, financial, and educational decisions for [St. Ann].” Doc. 36 at 5. She was also charged with promoting a Christian atmosphere within the school and insuring that the teachers integrated Christian values into their lesson planning. Doc. 49-2 at 10, 14-15. Nolen also frequently led the school in prayer and organized a variety of religious activities for students and faculty. Id. at 11-14.

         At the time Nolen was hired, St. Ann was experiencing financial hardship and had seen its enrollment decrease significantly. Doc. 36 at 4. To deal with this situation, Nolen began an aggressive outreach program marketing the school to the local Hispanic community. Nolen also arranged access to scholarship funds from a number of Student Scholarship Organizations to assist under-privileged students meet St. Ann's cost of attendance. Id. at 5. As the student body increased in number, Nolen decided to hire a secretary, Veronique Edington (“Edington”), to assist with her administrative duties. Id. Edington's husband is a member of St. Ann's advisory board and also a financial advisor to the Diocese.

         Nolen asserts that Edington “made many derogatory comments toward . . . Hispanic students, families, and scholarship applicants.” Id. at 5-6. Allegedly Edington also repeatedly declined to assist Nolen with school programs involving Hispanic students and families. Id. at 6. As a result, Nolen reprimanded Edington and also reported these incidents to the superintendent of the Diocese's parochial school system, Fran Lawlor, as well as the cleric in charge of St. Ann, Father Raymond Remke. Id. at 6-7. On October 24, 2014, Edington resigned from her position after a meeting with Nolen and the system superintendent addressing her behavior. Id. at 7. Purportedly, St. Ann's advisory board, on which Edington's husband served, began expressing anti-Hispanic sentiment and growing hostility toward Nolen following Edington's resignation. Id.

         On December 10, 2014, Father Remke, Nolen's direct supervisor, accused Nolen of embezzlement and demanded her immediate resignation. Id. Two days later, Father Remke met with Nolen and required her to sign a letter resigning her position. Id. It is undisputed that during her tenure at St. Ann Nolen wrote checks to herself even after being instructed not to do so. Doc. 49-2 at 15, 51. It is also undisputed that on at least two occasions Nolen improperly requested reimbursement for mileage well in excess of actual distance travelled. Id. at 48, 52.[4] Further, in the summer of 2014, St. Ann learned that Nolen was not even properly certified to serve as a principal in Alabama. Id. at 30. The school prompted Nolen to complete the certification process as soon as possible, but she failed the certifying examination held in August of 2014, and had not retaken the test when she resigned in December of that same year. Id. at 30-31.

         IV. DISCUSSION

         The heart of Nolen's complaint is her allegation that her attempts to protect Hispanic students and families at St. Ann from racial discrimination resulted in her retaliatory discharge in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981. More specifically, Nolen asserts that she sought to curtail discriminatory anti-Hispanic behavior at St. Ann's and, in particular, repeatedly confronted her secretary Edington, over her discriminatory actions and remarks. Allegedly, these efforts caused the school to retaliate against Nolen and eventually resulted in her forced resignation. In response, the Diocese contends that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution creates a ministerial exception precluding this court from applying federal anti-discrimination law to employment disputes arising between a church and one of its ministers. Because, the Diocese argues, Nolen qualifies as a minister, the ministerial exception applies to bar review of her § 1981 claim.

         The religious clauses of the First Amendment read as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” U.S. Const. amend. I. While the internal tension between these two constitutional commands has been well-documented, the Supreme Court has made clear that “[b]oth Religion Clauses bar the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers.” Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. EEOC, 565 U.S 171, 181 (2012). This constitutional grounded ministerial exception provides “that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful-a matter strictly ecclesiastical-is the church's alone.”[5] Id. at 195 (internal citation omitted). Indeed, in the ministerial context, a flat prohibition on court interference with employment decisions makes sense because the judiciary is particularly ill-equipped to conduct a post-hoc inquiry into whether an employment dispute between a minister and a religious organization is premised on secular rather than religious grounds. See Paul Horwitz, Act III of the Ministerial Exception, 106 Nw. U. L. Rev. 973, 979 (2012) (explaining that “judges cannot evaluate the kinds of religious questions that come up in employment discrimination cases involving ministerial employees . . . [because they] are simply incompetent to address them”).

         Turning to the facts, the parties do not dispute that the Diocese is a religious organization and is entitled to assert the ministerial exception as an affirmative defense. The only question before this court related to the application of the exception is whether Nolen, the principal of a Catholic parochial school, qualifies as a minister. Although not committing to any specific formula for deciding that question, the Supreme Court has delineated at least four factors for consideration: “[1] the formal title given . . . by the Church, [2] the substance reflected in that title, [3] [the employee's] own use of that title, and [4] the important ...


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