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Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) v. Edwards

Supreme Court of Kentucky

September 27, 2018



          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: John O. Sheller Stoll Keenon Ogden, PLLC Steven Clark Stoll Keenon Ogden, PLLC

          COUNSEL FOR REAL PARTY IN INTEREST: Roger Dale Warren Louisville, KY



         Appellant, the Presbyterian Church, appeals from the Court of Appeals' order granting in part and denying in part its petition for a writ to prohibit the trial court from lifting its stay of discovery. The Court of Appeals granted the writ to the extent the trial court should limit discovery to that which was necessary to determine whether the church was entitled to ecclesiastical immunity. For the following reasons, we affirm the Court of Appeals' order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Presbyterian Ministry Agency (PMA) hired Reverend Eric Hoey as the Director of Evangelism and Church Growth. During his tenure in that position, Hoey acted with other ministers to incorporate an entity separate and apart from the church. Church funds were transferred to the newly-created entity without authorization. The church issued a written warning to Hoey regarding his actions. This warning included findings that Hoey failed to properly manage ministers under his supervision, failed to timely inform his supervisors that he incorporated the entity without authorization, and that Hoey contributed to a culture of non-compliance with PMA and church policies.

         The church reported the disciplinary action to Hoey's Presbytery. That notification indicated that Hoey had known about the incorporation and approved a transfer of grant money without ensuring that the church's incorporation criteria were followed. The notification made it clear, however, that Hoey never intended to personally benefit from the funds and that all grant funds were returned. In addition to this disclosure made to the Presbytery, the church also released general information about the incorporation and dissolution of the entity to the denomination.

         The church placed Hoey on paid administrative leave for more than six months before terminating his employment. After his termination, Hoey filed a complaint in Jefferson Circuit Court alleging the church defamed him by reporting to independent Presbyterian news agencies and other third parties that he had "committed ethical violations." The church filed a motion for summary judgment. Hoey did not respond to that motion, but, instead, served the church discovery requests.

         At a status hearing, the church argued to the trial court that Hoey should not be entitled to discovery until the court ruled on its ecclesiastical-abstention and ministerial-exception defenses. The trial court disagreed with the church and ordered it to respond to Hoey's discovery requests within twenty days.

         Following the trial court's discovery ruling, the church petitioned the Court of Appeals for a writ, arguing the trial court had essentially abrogated its immunity by forcing it to participate in discovery without first making a threshold immunity determination. The church also asked the Court of Appeals to consider (for the first time) the issue of its immunity and to dismiss the underlying action on those grounds. The Court of Appeals granted the writ in part, holding the trial court had abused its discretion in allowing broad-reaching discovery, but denied the writ insofar as it would allow discovery related to the immunity issue. The Court of Appeals did not rule on the immunity issue. The church appeals, arguing the Court of Appeals' order did not go far enough. We disagree.

         II. ANALYSIS

         The issuance of a writ is an extraordinary remedy, and we have always been cautious and conservative in granting such relief. Grange Mut. Ins. v. Trude, 151 S.W.3d 803, 808 (Ky. 2004). The standard for granting petitions for writs of prohibition and mandamus is the same. Mahoney v. McDonald- Burkman, 320 S.W.3d 75, 77 n.2 (Ky. 2010) (citing Martin v. Admin. Office of Courts, 107 S.W.3d 212, 214 (Ky. 2003)). This Court set forth that standard in Hoskins v. Maricle:

A writ . . . may be granted upon a showing that (1) the lower court is proceeding or is about to proceed outside of its jurisdiction and there is no remedy through an application to an intermediate court; or (2) that the lower court is acting or is about to act erroneously, although within its jurisdiction, and there exists no adequate remedy by appeal or otherwise and great injustice and irreparable injury will result if the petition is not granted.

150 S.W.3d 1, 10 (Ky. 2004). Here, there is no argument that the lower court lacked jurisdiction. Therefore, this case falls under the second class of writ, which requires that there be (1) no adequate remedy by appeal and (2) great injustice and irreparable injury.

         In the present case, the church has satisfied the initial requirement of no adequate remedy by appeal, as "[o]nce the information is furnished it cannot be recalled." Bender v. Eaton, 343 S.W.2d 799, 802 (Ky. 1961). However, the church falls short of meeting the "great and irreparable injury" prong of that test. In Bender, our predecessor court stated:

Compelling a party, in advance of trial, to produce for the benefit of his adversary information or evidence, even assuming he should not be required to produce it under the Rules, probably would not constitute 'great and irreparable injury' within the meaning of that phrase." However, ... in a certain class of cases, of which this is one, the showing of such grievous injury is not an absolute necessity. . . . [I]f an erroneous order results in a substantial miscarriage of justice and the orderly administration of our Civil Rules necessitates an expression of our views, we may, and in the proper case should, decide the issue presented.

Id. "This Court has consistently recognized an exception to the irreparable harm requirement in 'certain special cases."' Ridgeway Nursing & Rehab. Facility, LLC v. Lane, 415 S.W.3d 635, 639-40 (Ky. 2013). In such cases, this Court will entertain the petition "provided a substantial miscarriage of justice will result if the lower court is proceeding erroneously, and correction of the error is necessary and appropriate in the interest of orderly judicial administration." Bender, 343 S.W.2d at 801. We review writs under the "certain special cases" exception de novo. Grange, 151 S.W.3d at 810.

         With that precedent in mind, we will determine if a substantial miscarriage of justice will result if the trial court's ruling regarding discovery is erroneous and if the correction of that ...

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