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Ciurleo v. St. Regis Parish

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

October 7, 2016

ST. REGIS PARISH, et al., Defendants.


          MARK A. GOLDSMITH United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants' motion for partial summary judgment (Dkt. 10). The issues have been fully briefed, and a hearing was held on September 8, 2016. Defendants seek a ruling that, as a matter of law, Plaintiff is barred from asserting federal and state employment law claims against Defendants because she falls within the First Amendment's ministerial exception, as set forth in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. E.E.O.C., 132 S.Ct. 694 (2012). For the reasons explained below, the Court grants Defendants' motion and dismisses the remaining state-law defamation claim without prejudice.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff began her employment with Defendants St. Regis Parish and St. Regis Elementary School and Academy (collectively, “St. Regis”) in August 2006. Compl. ¶ 14 (Dkt. 1). Plaintiff was initially employed by St. Regis as a junior kindergarten teacher, but was eventually assigned to teach first grade prior to the 2012-2013 school year. Id. ¶ 15-16. Throughout Plaintiff's employment with St. Regis, she worked under a succession of yearly written employment contracts. Id. ¶ 17.

         On June 12, 2014, Plaintiff and St. Regis entered into a written employment contract for the 2014-2015 school year. Id. ¶ 20. The contract stated that Plaintiff's duties consisted of teaching in St. Regis's facilities and performing other duties that assist St. Regis “in fulfilling its mission of providing a Catholic education for its students.” Empl. Agreement, Ex. A to Def. Mot., at 1 (Dkt. 10-2). The contract also required Plaintiff “not to engage in, nor to endorse, publicly, any actions or beliefs contrary to the teaching and standards of the Roman Catholic faith and morality and conscientiously . . . provide a Catholic role model for all students.” Id.

         The job description for pre-kindergarten through first grade teachers provides more information regarding Plaintiff's former role with St. Regis. It states that the teachers aid “students in Christian formation by exemplifying Catholic living, both in and out of the classroom.” Job Description, Ex. G to Def. Mot., at 2 (cm/ecf page) (Dkt. 10-8). It further explains that, in light of the fact that “Catholic schools educate their students to promote the kingdom of God, it is important that all teachers are role models for students, exemplifying Catholic teachings and values in their lives and in their actions.” Id. In addition to teaching the assigned subjects and grading work, teachers are to lead daily prayer, participate in school liturgies, and plan all-school liturgies as requested. Id.

         Under the section entitled “Job Qualifications, ” the description states that the teacher must be a practicing Catholic, possess a current teaching certification issued by the State of Michigan, a Bachelor's degree in education, and an early childhood endorsement for pre-kindergarten. Id. Teachers are also required to adhere to the Code of Ethical Conduct and complete background checks and safe-environment training prior to employment. Id. While the job description does not contain a requirement for prior religious training, the evaluation form for teachers at St. Regis contains a section regarding whether the teacher had completed her Catechist certification, and, if not, whether the teacher is working towards receiving her certification. Teacher Action Plan and Appraisal for Professional Growth, Ex. H to Def. Mot., at 1 (Dkt. 10-9). In addition, the bottom of a document entitled “2011-2012 Recommended Lay Teacher's Salary Scale” states that “[a]ll Principals & teachers employed in Catholic Schools should be certified Catechists within 12 months form [sic] date of hire. If certification is obtained within 12 months from date of hire a one time bonus of $500 will be paid out.” Salary Schedule, Ex. 2 to Pl. Resp., at 2 (cm/ecf page) (Dkt. 14-3).

         In practice, Plaintiff described her religious duties at St. Regis as being minimal. Plaintiff stated that she was required to lead a morning prayer and to teach religion for 20 to 30 minutes per day. Pl. Resp. at 23. Plaintiff stated that first grade teachers were also required to escort their students to a weekly school Mass. and to supervise the students during the Mass. Id. at 23-24.

         At the end of the 2014-2015 school year, Defendant Denise Ball, the principal at St. Regis, informed Plaintiff that her employment with St. Regis was being terminated. Compl. ¶¶ 21, 23. Ball told Plaintiff that she had decided to end Plaintiff's employment because St. Regis was moving in a “new direction.” Id. ¶ 24. At the time of her termination, Plaintiff was 53 years old. Id. ¶ 22. Plaintiff alleges that she was subsequently replaced with a “significantly younger employee.” Id. ¶ 25.

         She filed the instant action asserting claims for age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. § 623, et seq. and the Elliot Larsen Civil Rights Act (“ELCRA”), Mich. Comp. Laws § 37.2101, et seq.


         A court must grant “summary judgment 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). “In making this determination, the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in its favor.” U.S. S.E.C. v. Sierra Brokerage Servs., Inc., 712 F.3d 321, 327 (6th Cir. 2013). The court must determine “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-252 (1986). In considering the material facts in the record, the court must recognize that “[t]he mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff's position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff.” Id. at 422. Furthermore, plaintiff “cannot rely on conjecture or conclusory accusations.” Arendale v. City of Memphis, 519 F.3d 587, 605 (6th Cir. 2008).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Defendants argue that Plaintiff's claims under the ADEA and the ELCRA are barred by the First Amendment's ministerial exception to employment law claims brought by ministerial employees against religious organizations. Def. Mot. at 2. It is undisputed ...

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