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Olson v. First Church of Nazarene

May 20, 2003

LISA OLSON, ET AL., RESPONDENTS,
v.
FIRST CHURCH OF NAZARENE, ET AL., DEFENDANTS, MERVIN LEROY KELLEY, DEFENDANT, THE MINNESOTA DISTRICT CHURCH OF THE NAZARENE, APPELLANT.



Affirmed in part and reversed in part Stoneburner, Judge Hennepin County District Court File Nos. PI0114591, PI0114592

Considered and decided by Stoneburner , Presiding Judge, Lansing , Judge, and Klaphake , Judge.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

A district court has subject-matter jurisdiction over claims against a religious institution to determine whether an employer-employee relationship exists between the religious institution and a member of the clergy.

A district court has subject-matter jurisdiction over claims against the employer of a member of the clergy for negligent supervision, negligent retention, and vicarious liability, for the cleric's commission of the battery of sexual penetration against a person while that person was seeking or receiving ongoing, private, spiritual advice, aid, or comfort from the cleric.

A district court is precluded by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution from exercising subject-matter jurisdiction over a claim against a religious institution alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress based on the manner in which the religious institution informed its congregation about a sexual battery committed by an employee of the religious institution against a church member.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stoneburner, Judge

OPINION

The Minnesota District Church of the Nazarene (the District) appeals the district court's denial of its motion for summary judgment. The District argues that because the claims of respondents Lisa and Jay Olson arise from the context of pastoral counseling, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and art. I, § 16 of the Minnesota Constitution prohibit the court from exercising jurisdiction over Olsons' claims. We affirm the district court's denial of summary judgment for the claims of negligent supervision, negligent retention, and vicarious liability, and we reverse the district court's denial of summary judgment for the claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

FACTS

Respondents Lisa and Jay Olson were members of the First Church of the Nazarene in Fergus Falls and were friends of the former pastor, defendant Mervin Kelley. The District is the regional head of the Church of the Nazarene. In 1992, Lisa Olson began an ongoing, private spiritual-counseling relationship with Pastor Kelley. From 1996 to 1999, Lisa Olson and Kelley were involved in a sexual relationship. When church officials became aware of the relationship, the District confronted Kelley, who resigned after voluntarily forfeiting the credentials previously bestowed on him by the District that had allowed him to be hired as First Church's pastor. Church officials revealed Lisa Olson's name and relationship with Kelley to the congregation during the explanation of Kelley's resignation.

Kelley was subsequently convicted of criminal sexual conduct in the third degree in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.344, subd. 1(l)(ii) (2000), which provides, in relevant part that:

A person who engages in sexual penetration with another person is guilty of criminal sexual conduct in the third degree if * * * the actor is * * * a member of the clergy, the complainant is not married to the actor, and * * * the sexual penetration occurred during a period of time in which the complainant was meeting on an ongoing basis with the actor to seek or receive religious or spiritual advice, aid or comfort in private. Consent by the complainant is not a defense.

Lisa Olson and Jay Olson, in separate complaints that have been consolidated, sued Kelley, First Church, the District, and the church's national organization, the Board of General Superintendents. Kelley never answered the complaints. The Olsons settled with the local church and the national organization. Only the claims against the District remain.

The Olsons claim that the District, as Kelley's employer, is vicariously liable for Kelley's battery of sexual penetration, and is liable for negligent retention and negligent supervision of Kelley. Lisa and Jay Olson also claim intentional infliction of emotional distress stemming from the disclosure of Lisa's name to the congregation.*fn1 The District moved for summary judgment, arguing that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and art. 1, § 16 of the Minnesota Constitution preclude the exercise of subject-matter jurisdiction by the district court over the Olsons' claims. The district court denied summary judgment, concluding that the claims can be resolved by applying neutral principles of law without regard to religion and that examination of church documents to determine the relationship between the District and Kelley does not pose a risk of excessive state entanglement in religion. This appeal followed.

ISSUES

Does the district court have subject-matter jurisdiction to determine whether an employment relationship existed between the District and Kelley?

If the District is determined to have been Kelley's employer at the relevant time, does the district court have jurisdiction over the Olsons' claims against the District for negligent supervision, negligent retention, and vicarious liability?

Does the district court have subject-matter jurisdiction over Olson's claims against the District for intentional infliction of emotional distress based on the announcement of Lisa Olson's name to the congregation in ...


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