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St. Joseph Catholic Orphan Soc'y v. Edwards

Supreme Court of Kentucky

December 18, 2014

ST. JOSEPH CATHOLIC ORPHAN SOCIETY, ET AL., APPELLANTS
v.
HONORABLE BRIAN C. EDWARDS, JUDGE, JEFFERSON CIRCUIT COURT, APPELLEE AND ST. JOSEPH HOME ALUMNI ASSOCIATION, ET AL., REAL PARTIES IN INTEREST

Released for Publication January 8, 2015.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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ON REVIEW FROM COURT OF APPEALS. CASE NO. 2013-CA-001391-MR. JEFFERSON CIRCUIT COURT NO. 13-CI-0001781.

COUNSEL FOR APPELLANTS: Walter L. Sales, Leah Rupp Smith, Joseph A. Bilby, Stoll Keenon Ogden PLLC; Charles Harding Cassis, Jennifer Kaelin Luhrs, Goldberg Simpson, LLC; The Honorable Brian Clifford Edwards Judge, Jefferson Circuit Court, Division Eleven.

COUNSEL FOR REAL PARTIES IN INTEREST: Charles Thomas Hectus, Hectus Law Office, William Joseph Walsh IV, Buchenberger Walsh, PLLC.

OPINION

MINTON CHIEF JUSTICE.

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AFFIRMING DENIAL OF WRIT, REVERSING DENIAL OF MOTION TO DISMISS, AND REMANDING WITH INSTRUCTIONS

After being removed from their seats on St. Joseph Catholic Orphan Society's Board of Trustees, certain individuals who also identify themselves as members of the St. Joseph Home Alumni Association,[1] filed suit against St. Joseph and the newly-elected Board members.[2] The suit challenges the validity of the Board's resolution effectuating their removal and seeks reappointment of the ousted members to St. Joseph's Board of Trustees.

St. Joseph sought dismissal of the suit, arguing the trial court was without subject-matter jurisdiction because of the application of the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine. The trial court denied St. Joseph's motion to dismiss because it found the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine inapplicable.

St. Joseph is now before this Court seeking a writ of mandamus requiring the trial court to dismiss the underlying action. It again claims the trial court is without subject-matter jurisdiction to hear the Alumni's cause of action because of the application of ecclesiastical abstention. The Court of Appeals, where this writ action originated, declined to issue a writ, concluding ecclesiastical abstention did not apply because the underlying case could be adjudicated on the basis of neutral principles of law. St. Joseph appeals the writ denial to this Court as a matter of right.[3]

Before this Court, St. Joseph contends the Court of Appeals erred in declining to issue a writ because, regardless of the neutrality of the applicable secular law, the underlying suit is one concerning the internal governance of a religious entity. As such, St. Joseph argues, the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine applies and deprives the circuit court of subject-matter jurisdiction to hear the suit.

We affirm the denial of a writ by the Court of Appeals, but we do so on other grounds. We conclude the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine does not divest our courts of subject-matter jurisdiction to hear cases they are otherwise authorized to adjudicate. So the issuance of a writ is improper. Instead, we reason that the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine is to be applied as an affirmative defense akin to the ministerial exception, including the right to an interlocutory appeal following a trial court's denial of its application. As such and in the interests of judicial economy, we treat St. Joseph's petition for a writ of mandamus as an interlocutory appeal from the trial court's denial of its motion to dismiss based on the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine. And on the merits

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of St. Joseph's claim, we agree that the underlying action presents a question of ecclesiastical governance, which means that the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine prohibits the underlying action from going forward in the trial court. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's order denying St. Joseph's motion to dismiss, and we remand the case to the trial court with instructions to dismiss the action.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY.

A. We are Constrained to Deny Alumni's Untimely Motion for Enlargement of Time to File a Brief. Without a Brief From the Appellees, we Accept the Appellant's Version of the Facts and Issues.

Before our customary recitation of the circumstances encompassing this case, we must address a pending motion that bears directly on our view of the relevant facts. Alumni has not filed a timely brief in response to St. Joseph's brief and has moved this Court for an enlargement of time to do so.

The original deadline for Alumni's appellees' brief was March 3, 2014. Alumni first moved this Court for an enlargement of time on that date, requesting the deadline be extended to March 21, 2014. We granted Alumni's motion with little objection from St. Joseph. But Alumni failed to meet this extended deadline and did not mail their appellees' brief to the Court until March 24, 2014, one working day after the deadline.[4] The clerk returned Alumni's brief, which prompted the pending motion for an enlargement of time to allow Alumni to file its appellees' brief.

When a party seeks an enlargement of time after the expiration of the time period to be enlarged, as is the case here, the Court may, in its discretion, grant the enlargement if it finds " the failure to act was the result of excusable neglect." [5] Our predecessor court has defined excusable neglect as " the act of a reasonably prudent person under the same circumstances." [6] Alumni's counsel attempts to show excusable neglect by citing his transcription of the incorrect date in his calendar and distraction caused by his mother's impending surgery.[7]

We are unconvinced that Alumni has shown its failure to comply with this Court's deadline was the result of excusable neglect. We cannot find that incorrectly transcribing the filing deadline, a date Alumni's counsel specifically requested when seeking the first enlargement, constitutes excusable neglect.[8] And we are likewise unconvinced that counsel's preocupation caused by his mother's impending surgery rises to the level of excusable neglect. The surgery was scheduled to take place four days after the filing deadline for the brief, and counsel does not disclose the nature of the procedure or the precipitating condition to allow us to gauge what level of preoccupation might befall " a reasonably prudent person" in counsel's circumstances. To be sure, family medical emergencies and ongoing medical treatment may give rise to excusable neglect in

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some instances, but the existence of a relative's scheduled medical procedure, without more, does' not precipitate the kind of neglect that excuses failure to comply with filing deadlines. Alumni's motion for an enlargement of time is, therefore, denied.

Because we have denied Alumni's motion for enlargement of time, we have no brief from Alumni filed consistently with our rules.[9] CR 76.12(8)(c) provides the range of penalties that may be levied against an appellee for failing to file a timely brief. In our discretion, we may: " (i) accept the appellant's statement of the facts and issues as correct; (ii) reverse the judgment if appellant's brief reasonably appears to sustain such action; or (iii) regard the appellee's failure as a confession of error and reverse the judgment without considering the merits of the case.'"

St. Joseph urges us to reverse the ruling of the Court of Appeals because its brief " reasonably appears to sustain such action." Although St. Joseph's argument is not unreasonable, reversal of the decision of the Court of Appeals would result in dismissal of Alumni's underlying claim. The fault for failing to comply with the deadline ostensibly lies with Alumni's counsel, so dismissal of Alumni's cause of action seems too harsh a punishment to levy against the faultless party. We find it more appropriate to accept St. Joseph's ...


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