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Winkler v. Marist Fathers of Detroit, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Michigan

September 21, 2017

BETTINA WINKLER, by her next friends, HELGA DAHM WINKLER and MARVIN WINKLER, Plaintiff-Appellee,

         ON REMAND

         Oakland Circuit Court LC No. 2014-141112-CZ

          Before: Sawyer, P.J., and K. F. Kelly and Fort Hood, JJ.

          PER CURIAM.

         This case returns to us on remand from the Michigan Supreme Court. In this action alleging discrimination under the Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act (PWDCRA), MCL 37.1101 et seq., this panel, relying on Dlaikan v Roodbeen, 206 Mich.App. 591; 522 N.W.2d 719 (1994), previously held that the trial court "does not have subject-matter jurisdiction to review plaintiff's claim based on constitutional protections afforded by the First Amendment." Therefore, this Court reversed the trial court's order denying defendant's motion for summary disposition. Winkler v Marist Fathers of Detroit, Inc, unpublished opinion per curiam of the Court of Appeals, issued November 12, 2015 (Docket No. 323511); slip op at 5. In an opinion decided June 27, 2017, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed this Court's decision. The Michigan Supreme Court explained:

While Dlaikan and some other decisions have characterized the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine as depriving civil courts of subject matter jurisdiction, it is clear from the doctrine's origins and operation that this is not so. The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine may affect how a civil court exercises its subject matter jurisdiction over a given claim; it does not divest a court of such jurisdiction altogether. To the extent Dlaikan and other decisions are inconsistent with this understanding of the doctrine, they are overruled. [Winkler v Marist

Fathers of Detroit, Inc, __Mich__, __;__N.W.2d __(2017) (Docket No. 152889); slip op at 2.]

         The Michigan Supreme Court remanded the case to this Court to consider defendant's alternative argument that it was entitled to summary disposition because the PWDCRA does not apply to its school. Winkler, __Mich at__; slip op at 15-16.


         This Court's earlier opinion recites the following factual history underlying this case:

Notre Dame Marist Academy (Marist) is a private, Catholic middle school in Pontiac, Michigan. Notre Dame Preparatory School (Notre Dame) is a private, Catholic high school in Pontiac, Michigan. Together, Marist and Notre Dame constitute the defendant in this case, Marist Fathers of Detroit, Inc, [doing business as] Notre Dame Preparatory High School and Marist Academy. Plaintiff, Bettina Winkler, enrolled in Marist as both a seventh-grade and eighth-grade student. According to plaintiff's complaint, she was "assured on numerous occasions that if she enrolled at Marist for 7th and 8th grade, she would be guaranteed placement in Notre Dame Prep for High School 9th grade." However, plaintiff was not granted admission to Notre Dame. Approximately two months after being denied admission to Notre Dame, plaintiff was diagnosed with certain learning disabilities.[1] Thereafter, this lawsuit was filed, alleging in pertinent part discrimination under the Persons With Disabilities Civil Rights Act (PWDCRA), MCL 37.1401 et seq. Plaintiff alleged that despite being "long aware that [she] had a learning disability, " defendant denied her admission to Notre Dame and "consistently relied upon her learning disability . . . as a justification" for doing so. [Winkler, unpub op at 1-2 (footnote added).]

         Procedurally, in the trial court, plaintiff's parents, Helga Dahm Winkler and Marvin Winkler, filed a complaint on behalf of their daughter, alleging disability discrimination under the PWDCRA, violation of Michigan's Consumer Protection Act (MCPA), MCL 445.901 et seq., and claims of tortious fraud and misrepresentation.[2] Defendant filed a motion for summary disposition pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(4) and (C)(10). Claiming summary disposition was warranted pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(4), defendant focused primarily on this Court's prior ruling in Dlaikan, asserting the absence of subject matter jurisdiction for civil courts over a religious school's admissions decisions pursuant to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Defendant also sought summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), arguing that it was not aware of plaintiff's disability at the time she was denied admission to the high school, and that it had provided accommodations to plaintiff after learning of plaintiff's disability. Plaintiff responded to the motion, asserting, in relevant part, that defendant's status as a religious school did not exempt it from being subject to the PWDCRA. Plaintiff further asserted that defendant was on notice in 2012 of plaintiff's attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis and suspected learning disability. Plaintiff also argued that Dlaikan was not applicable and factually distinguishable from this case. In reply, defendant asserted that as a private school, it did not fall within the ambit of the PWDCRA.

         The trial court issued an opinion and order denying defendant's motion for summary disposition. As relevant to the issue on remand, the trial court denied defendant's motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), explaining, in pertinent part, as follows:

While the [PWDCRA] does not expressly address religious schools, it is basic that under rules of statutory construction, words and phrases are to be construed according to the ordinary rules of grammar and dictionary meanings. Here it appears that Notre Dame Prep High School is a public or private institution or School system; Defendant fails to establish that the PWDCRA does not apply to the Notre Dame Prep High School given [the applicable] definitions in the act. [Citations omitted.]

         Defendant filed an application for leave to appeal in this Court, which was granted.[3] On appeal to this Court, as relevant to this remand, defendant argued that the PWDCRA is not applicable to religious schools. Plaintiff responded that the PWDCRA was clearly applicable to religious schools given the definition of an educational institution in MCL 37.1401, demonstrating the Legislature's decision to not exempt such schools.[4] As noted above, this Court reversed the trial court's ruling on the basis that the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction where defendant's actions in denying plaintiff admission to its school were protected by the First Amendment. Accordingly, this Court did not reach the issue whether defendant was an "educational institution" as contemplated by MCL 37.1401.

         Plaintiff subsequently filed an application for leave to appeal in the Michigan Supreme Court, and following the submission of briefs and oral argument, the Michigan Supreme Court issued an opinion holding, in pertinent part, as follows:

The existence of subject matter jurisdiction turns not on the particular facts of the matter before the court, but on its general legal classification. By contrast, application of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is not determined by reference to the category or class of case the plaintiff has stated. . . . What matters instead is whether the actual adjudication of a particular legal claim would require the resolution of ecclesiastical questions; if so, the court must abstain from resolving those questions itself, defer to the religious entity's resolution of such questions, and adjudicate the claim accordingly. The doctrine, in short, requires a case-specific inquiry that informs how a court must adjudicate certain claims within its subject matter jurisdiction; it does not determine whether the court has such jurisdiction in the first place. The instant panel thus erred, albeit understandably, in deeming summary disposition warranted under MCR 2.116(C)(4), and we reverse that determination. [Winkler, __Mich at__; slip op at 12-13 (citations omitted).]

         The Michigan Supreme Court noted that defendant, even without disputing "this general understanding of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, " also argued that plaintiff's claim of an alleged violation of the PWDCRA could not survive application of the doctrine. Id. at 13. Specifically, defendant argued that despite the ability of a civil court to exercise jurisdiction of plaintiff's "challenge to its admissions decision, the court cannot disrupt that decision or award the plaintiff relief as to it without impermissibly passing judgment on ecclesiastical matters." Id. Defendant's argument was premised on "an analogy between the students of its high school and the clergy and membership of a church." Id. at 14. Arguing that church authorities maintain the final say in matters of expulsion or excommunication from the church and that civil courts cannot interfere in such decisions, defendant contended that "[a] parochial school's admission or expulsion of a student is no different . . . given the 'integral part' such a school can play in furthering 'the religious mission of the Catholic Church' and in 'transmitting the Catholic faith to the next generation.' " Id. (citations omitted).

         In response, the Michigan Supreme Court stated, in pertinent part:

Whether this analogy is generally sound, and whether it holds up in the instant case (or in Dlaikan, for that matter), we see no reason to reach at this time. It is for the circuit court, in the first instance, to determine whether and to what extent the adjudication of the legal and factual issues presented by the plaintiff's claim would require the resolution of ecclesiastical questions (and thus deference to any answers the church has provided to those questions). It is enough for our purposes here to clarify that, contrary to the suggestion of Dlaikan and other decisions, the circuit court does, in fact, have subject matter jurisdiction over the plaintiff's claim, and the judicial power to consider it and dispose of it in a manner consistent with the guarantees of the First Amendment. Simply put, to the extent that application of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine might still prove fatal to the plaintiff's claim for relief under the PWDCRA, it will not be for lack of "jurisdiction of the subject matter" under MCR 2.116(C)(4). [Winkler, __Mich at__; slip op at 14-15 (footnote omitted).]

         Consequently, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed this Court's judgment regarding defendant's entitlement to summary disposition of the jurisdictional issue pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(4). With reference to the issue currently on remand before this Court, our Supreme Court stated:

As to the defendant's entitlement to summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), the Court of Appeals previously declined to reach those arguments on which the circuit court had not yet ruled; we see no reason to disrupt that decision. The circuit court did, however, reject the defendant's argument that the PWDCRA does not apply to its school, a ruling which the defendant challenged on appeal but which the panel saw no need to review given its jurisdictional determination. Having reversed the jurisdictional determination, we remand this matter to the Court of Appeals for consideration of that challenge. [Winkler, __Mich at__; slip op at 15-16.]

         II. ANALYSIS

         The issue on remand - whether the PWDCRA is applicable to defendant, a religious school - is significant, yet narrow in focus. On remand, we are not instructed to evaluate whether defendant violated the PWDCRA with regard to its dealings with plaintiff. Rather, the Michigan Supreme Court has directed us to address only the first step in analyzing plaintiff's claim-whether defendant's ...

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