Appeals court remands Episcopal Church in South Carolina federal lawsuit

Episcopal Church in South Carolina press release

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has again ruled in favor of attorneys for the bishop of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina in a federal false-advertising lawsuit against the bishop of a breakaway group, sending the case back to U.S. District Court in Charleston for another hearing.

The Feb. 21 ruling came in a published opinion from Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, the head of the three-judge panel that heard the case on Dec. 9 in Richmond, Virgina.  Thomas S. Tisdale Jr., chancellor of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, presented oral arguments on behalf of the bishop of the diocese that is recognized by Tthe Episcopal Church in eastern South Carolina. The panel consisted of Judges Roger Gregory, Diana Gribbon Motz and Richard D. Bennett.

The federal lawsuit, vonRosenberg v. Lawrence, was filed in March 2013, a few months after Mark Lawrence and a breakaway group announced they were leaving the Episcopal Church. The suit involves a claim of false advertising under the federal Lanham Act, saying that Mark Lawrence is committing false advertising by continuing to represent himself as bishop of the diocese.

The case has gone before the U.S. District Court in Charleston two times, and both times, Judge C. Weston Houck decided not to proceed with hearing the case, in favor of waiting until a separate lawsuit is resolved in the state courts. The state lawsuit was filed in Dorchester County by the breakaway group and a number of parishes, and involves the identity and assets of the diocese as well as parish properties. It is currently before the South Carolina Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in September 2015 but has not yet ruled.

The Feb. 21 ruling was the second time the case has been remanded by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Under the principles set forth in the Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States decision, the court may abstain only in “exceptional” circumstances, and the last time the appeals court heard the case, it determined that standard had not be met.

Attorneys for Mark Lawrence have argued that the state and federal cases are parallel. However, in its ruling Feb.21, the judges found that the actions are not parallel, and that the state lawsuit, when resolved, will not resolve all of the claims at issue in the federal action. Neither bishop is a party to the state action, and the state case does not involve any of The Episcopal Church’s claims under the Lanham Act.

“Thus, because the state and federal cases involve different parties and different claims, the district court abused its discretion under Colorado River by abstaining in favor of the state court proceedings,” Judge Motz’s ruling says.

In 2013 when the suit was filed, vonRosenberg was the only bishop recognized by the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion as bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina. He has since retired, and the Rt. Rev. Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as bishop in September 2016. Now that the case has been remanded, the court will be asked to substitute the new bishop as the plaintiff, Tisdale said.

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