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Saint Augustine School v. Cropper

Supreme Court of Kentucky

November 27, 2017

SAINT AUGUSTINE SCHOOL; DIOCESE OF COVINGTON APPELLANTS
v.
JANET CROPPER APPELLEE

          RENDERED: NOVEMBER 2, 2017

         ON REVIEW FROM COURT OF APPEALS CASE NO. 2014-CA-001518 BRACKEN CIRCUIT COURT NO. 13-CI-00024

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANTS: Richard G. Meyer Nicholas Charles Birkenhauer Dressman Benzinger Lavelle PSC.

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Gail Marie Langendorf Busald, Funk 8b Zevely, PSC.

          OPINION

          MINTON CHIEF JUSTICE.

         Janet Cropper was dismissed from her job as the lay administrator of Saint Augustine School, an elementary school affiliated with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington. She then brought this action against the diocese, the school, and the pastor of the Saint Augustine Church[1], claiming damages for, among other theories of recovery, breach of her employment contract. On discretionary review, we hold that the trial court and the Court of Appeals panel did not err when they ruled-for different reasons-that Cropper is not barred from asserting her breach-of-contract claim. In affirming the result reached by the Court of Appeals panel, we reject the argument from the diocese that the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine bars this breach of contract claim. Accordingly, we remand the case to the trial court for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND.

         The Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington employed Janet Cropper to be the lay administrator of Saint Augustine School for the 2011-12 academic year. Near the end of the 2011-12 school term, the diocese renewed Cropper's employment contract for the following academic year. But on the eve of the opening of the school term, Father Gregory Bach, Saint Augustine's Pastor, informed Cropper that her job as lay administrator was eliminated and her employment with the diocese was terminated, stemming from the school's declining enrollment and dwindling operating funds.

         Cropper then sued Saint Augustine for, among other theories of recovery, breach of her employment contract. Both Cropper and Saint Augustine filed motions for summary judgment. The trial court ruled in favor of Cropper that her claims were not barred by the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine but ultimately ruled in favor of Saint Augustine that, as a matter of law, Cropper could not show a breach of her employment contract. Cropper appealed the trial court's decision, and the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's determination that Cropper could not prove a breach of contract and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. The appeals panel rejected the application of the ministerial-exception doctrine without mentioning the application of the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine.

         II. ANALYSIS.

         A. Standard of Review.

         We review a trial court's granting of a party's summary judgment motion de novo.[2] "On appeal, '[t]he standard of review... of a summary judgment is whether the circuit judge correctly found that there were no issues as to any material fact and that the moving party was entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. "[3]

         B. Substantive Analysis.

         Saint Augustine argues that the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine bars Cropper from asserting a claim for damages for breach of her employment contract. As a matter of clarification, both the ecclesiastical-abstention and ministerial-exception doctrines operate as affirmative defenses, not as ...


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