Common Roots: Ancient Evangelical Future Conference

The Meaning of the Fort Worth Decision

The brief summary judgment order signed last Monday by Judge Chupp does not even begin to touch on the significance that lies behind it.

The brief summary judgment order signed last Monday by Judge Chupp does not even begin to touch on the significance that lies behind it. Let me use this post as a vehicle to make its significance understandable to anyone who will take the time to read it.

The first thing to note is that the Order deals with “Motions for Partial Summary Judgment” (my emphasis). To understand what those words mean, first one needs to know what “summary judgment” is.

A judgment is the final decision of a court that ends a case — whether after a jury trial, or a trial to just a judge alone (called a “bench trial”). Because the judgment is final (meaning the trial court cannot alter or change it once it is signed and filed — except in certain trivial cases, to correct clerical errors), it is then subject to appeal, to the next higher tribunal. The higher court may then eitheraffirm or reverse the judgment.

If the appellate court affirms the judgment below, it once again will become final after about thirty days or so (depending on the State), unless it is taken up by a still higher court, like the State’s supreme court, or by the highest court in the land, the United States Supreme Court. Unlike a normal appellate court, however, those highest courts are not required to accept all requests to review a lower court’s judgment — review with them is discretionary. If they decline review, the judgment then really becomes final, and is unalterable by any court thereafter.

Because it comes at the very end of a case, a “judgment” wraps up all of the claims made on either side. It reduces them down to the ones as to which a remedy is granted (such as ordering a defendant to pay the plaintiff a sum of money, to compensate for an injury), and the ones on which relief is denied, perhaps because there was not evidence enough to support the claim, or perhaps because the claim was not well taken in the law, or for any number of other reasons.

When we speak of a “summary judgment”, we mean simply a judgment that is entered without there having been a trial, which is why it is called “summary.” The court reads the motions and supporting papers submitted by both sides, and if it finds that there are no genuine disputes over any material  issues of fact (i.e., that both sides essentially agree on what took place), then there is no need to impanel a jury. The court simply applies the law to the facts as demonstrated by the motions, and renders a summary judgment — which may then become final in the same way that an ordinary judgment becomes final.

partial summary judgment is one, then, that grants summary judgment, but only as to part of the whole case. Perhaps there were some claims raised by one of the sides that will require a jury to sort out the facts. The court cannot grant a summary judgment as to those issues — while it is able to do so on the other claims in the case.

And that was what happened in the Fort Worth case. The parties each brought motions for summary judgment as to the issues of who controlled the diocesan corporation that owned all the real property, and whether or not there was any permanent trust imposed upon that property. As to those issues, Judge Chupp ruled that the trustees elected by Bishop Iker’s diocese controlled the corporation, and that the corporation held its real property free and clear of any trust in favor of the national Church.

ECUSA and Bishop Iker each had additional claims against the other, however, which could not be resolved by summary judgment. For the most part, ECUSA alleged that Bishop Iker breached his “fiduciary duties” owed to the national Church, or converted property that was not his, or committed trespass, while Bishop Iker asserted claims against ECUSA for trademark infringement and damages.  These raised disputed questions of fact which would need to be tried before a jury. So ECUSA was not able to move for summary judgment as to its whole complaint; nor could Bishop Iker move for summary judgment on his whole complaint — they both had to settle for motions for partial summary judgment, as to the facts that were undisputed, and as to just the claims that turned on those facts.

Now, however, that Judge Chupp has ruled in Bishop Iker’s favor on the main claims, the lesser claims by ECUSA are, for all practical purposes, “moot” — that is, they no longer matter to the outcome of the case. Because Bishop Iker is the rightful head of the diocesan corporation, then nothing he did with the corporation’s property could ever amount to conversion, trespass, or breach of fiduciary duty. As just noted, however, there are still some claims to be tried on Bishop Iker’s side. The judgment is only partial, and not final, as long as there are still claims which have not been resolved; an appeal may be taken only from a final judgment.

Judge Chupp’s ruling is thus significant for a number of reasons:

1. For all practical purposes, it ended the case — in favor of Bishop Iker and his co-defendants. There are still some claims for damages and trademark infringement, etc., reserved for another day.

2. It agreed with the Texas Supreme Court that “neutral principles of law” were to be used to decide the issues in the case, and that their application was not retroactive, since Texas courts had been applying neutral principles to church property disputes for a number of years already.

3. It decided that Bishop Iker and his co-trustees were the rightful officers and directors of the diocesan corporation — not those people belatedly elected by the rump group that organized after Bishop Iker’s diocese left the Church.

4. It decided that nothing in the national Church’s Constitution or canons (bylaws) prohibited the Diocese from amending its governing documents so as to remove itself from the national Church, and realign itself with another denomination. The amendments it adopted were lawful, and not ultra vires (“beyond its powers”).

5. It decided that the diocesan corporation held its property — including that of all the individual Fort Worth parishes — free and clear of any claims by either the national Church or its rump diocese.

6. And it decided that Bishop Iker’s diocese, not the rump group, is entitled to call itself “the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.”

At the same time, Judge Chupp’s order severed the case of the ownership of the parish property of All Saints, Ft. Worth, for a separate trial later this spring. He apparently did so because All Saints is a separate religious corporation under Texas law, and because it holds legal title to several parcels of property which it purchased in addition to the parcel on which the church building sits. There are some disputed issues of fact as to which faction of the original All Saints congregation is in control of the parish corporation, and hence of its real property.

At the hearing on the summary judgment motions, Judge Chupp asked why the parties had not applied Diocesan Canon 32 to the case of All Saints. That Canon provides in part:

 Section 32.3 In the case of a controversy between a Parish and the Diocese, the Rector and a majority of the members of the Vestry may petition the Bishop, whose duty it shall be to seek to bring the parties to an amicable conclusion. To that end, the Rector and majority of the Vestry shall provide a reasonable opportunity for the Bishop, a diocesan chancellor and a member of the Standing Committee to meet on parish property with the entire Vestry and such members of the parish as wish to be present. Both verbal and written notice of the meeting must be provided to the members of the parish. It will be the duty of the Bishop to determine the extent to which the members of the parish agree with the Rector and majority of the Vestry. It shall also be the duty of the Bishop to make adequate provision in any resolution to protect the interest of the minority of the parish wishing to remain in union with the Diocese, and to protect the missionary interest of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. In the case where an agreement is reached, it shall be signed by the Rector and the Bishop and attested to by at least a two thirds majority of the members of the Vestry and at least a majority of the members of the Standing Committee…

Pursuant to Judge Chupp’s suggestion, Bishop Iker recently sent out a letter to all members on both sides of the All Saints congregation, inviting them to a meeting to discuss how the parties — without prejudice to their respective positions in the litigation — might try to reach a resolution of their differences in accordance with the procedures and guidelines earlier given out for the application of Canon 32. These procedures and guidelines were followed in resolving three previous disputes with congregations about the ownership of parish properties.

Admittedly, the problem with All Saints is more complex, because the current group in de facto  control of the parish corporation did not exactly follow Canon 32’s guidelines earlier, and indeed kept Bishop Iker out of the process. Now that the Court has decided that Bishop Iker and his trustees are the incumbents of the diocesan corporation, however, and given that that corporation holds legal title to the main parish property of All Saints, there should be an incentive on the part of both sides to seek an amicable resolution of their dispute. The meeting is called for next March 26, and what happens then will tell the tale.

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