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McRaney v. The North American Mission Board of The Southern Baptist Convention, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Aberdeen Division

January 18, 2018

WILL McRANEY PLAINTIFF
v.
THE NORTH AMERICAN MISSION BOARD OF THE SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION, INC. DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO DISMISS

         Before the Court is the Defendant North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention's ("NAMB") motion to dismiss [Doc. No. 8] the Plaintiffs claims pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The matter is now ripe for review. Upon due consideration, the Court finds that the motion should be granted in part and denied in part.

         Background

         The Plaintiff Will McRaney ("McRaney") is the former Executive Director of the nonparty General Mission Board of the Baptist Convention for Maryland/Delaware ("BCMD"). Pl.'s Comp. [Doc. No. 2] at 2. The BCMD is a self-governing group of 560 separate, autonomous churches. Id. It is one of 42 separate state conventions that work in cooperation with the non-party Southern Baptist Convention ("SBC"). Id.

         The Defendant NAMB is a constituent board of the SBC. Id. at 2. While McRaney was never employed by the NAMB, he was employed by the BCMD, which partnered together with the NAMB under a "Strategic Partnership Agreement." Id. at 3. Aside from the obligations of this agreement, the BCMD are NAMB are separate and autonomous from each other. The BCMD is self-governing with its own boards and member churches, and the NAMB operates pursuant to its own Board of Trustees selected at annual meetings of the SBC. Id.

         Under their partnership agreement, the BCMD and NAMB had eight jointly funded staff positions that were overseen by McRaney. Id.. In 2014, the NAMB developed a revised partnership agreement that eliminated the jointly-funded staff positions and gave the NAMB greater control over other staff positions of the BCMD. Id. The NAMB was unsuccessful in persuading McRaney to accept the new partnership agreement on behalf of the BCMD. NAMB President Dr. Kevin Ezell and Vice President Jeff Christopherson thereafter gave notice to the BCMD that the NAMB intended to cancel the partnership agreement between the NAMB and the BCMD. Id. at 4.

         In June 2015, following meetings between Dr. Ezell and other board members of the BCMD, McRaney was terminated from his position as Executive Director of the BCMD. Id. According to McRaney, this was because Ezell threated to withhold all NAMB funds from the BCMD unless the BCMD terminated McRaney and agreed to enter into the new partnership agreement. Id. at 5.

         McRaney alleges that, after his termination from employment with the BCMD, NAMB leadership continued to interfere with business and contractual relationships that McRaney had with third parties. For instance, McRaney avers that, in October 2016, he was scheduled to speak at a mission symposium in Louisville, Mississippi, until NAMB employees allegedly spoke to organizers of the event and had him uninvited. Id. Additionally, in November 2016, McRaney alleges that he was scheduled to speak at the Florida Baptist Convention Pastor's Conference. In early November, the Pastor's Conference President informed McRaney that Dr. Ezell had attempted, unsuccessfully, to get McRaney's appearance canceled. Id. Finally, McRaney alleges that his photo was posted at the NAMB headquarters welcome desk with a caption that stated he was not to be trusted. Id.

         McRaney then filed this action in the Circuit Court of Winston County, Mississippi, alleging three claims of intentional interference with business relationships, one claim of defamation, and one claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress. The NAMB then removed the case to this Court based on federal diversity jurisdiction, and after filing its answer, filed the present motion seeking to dismiss McRaney's claims.

         Standard for Dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6)

         Motions to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) "are viewed with disfavor and are rarely granted." Kocurek v. Cuna Mut. Ins. Soc'y, 459 Fed.Appx. 371, 373 (5thCir. 2012)(citing Gregson v. Zurich Am. Ins. Co., 322 F.3d 883, 885 (5th Cir. 2003)). When deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the Court is limited to the allegations set forth in the complaint and any documents attached to the complaint. Walker v. Webco Indus., Inc., 562 Fed.Appx. 215, 216-17 (5th Cir. 2014) (per curiam) (citing Kennedy v. Chase Manhattan Bank USA, NA, 369 F.3d 833, 839 (5th Cir. 2004)).

         "[A plaintiffs] complaint therefore 'must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." ' " Phillips v. City of Dallas, Tex., 781 F.3d 772, 775-76 (5th Cir. 2015) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007))). A claim is facially plausible when the pleaded factual content "allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955). "[P]laintiffs must allege facts that support the elements of the cause of action in order to make out a valid claim." Webb v. Morella, 522 Fed.Appx. 238, 241 (5th Cir. 2013) (per curiam) (quoting City of Clinton, Ark v. Pilgrim's Pride Corp., 632 F.3d 148, 152-53 (5th Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks omitted)). "[C]onclusory allegations or legal conclusions masquerading as factual conclusions will not suffice to prevent a motion to dismiss." Id. (quoting Fernandez-Montes v. Allied Pilots Ass'n, 987 F.2d 278, 284 (5th Cir. 1993) (internal quotation marks omitted)). "Dismissal is appropriate when the plaintiff has not alleged * enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face' and has failed to 'raise a right to relief above the speculative level.' " Emesowum v. Hous. Police Dep't, 561 Fed.Appx. 372, 372 (5th Cir. 2014) (per curiam) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955).

         Analysis

         1. The Ministerial Exception and Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine

         a. The Ministerial Exception

         The NAMB first argues that the "ministerial exception" bars McRaney's claims. The "ministerial exception" is a First Amendment doctrine that precludes court interference into "the employment relationship between a religious institution and its 'ministers'." Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. E.E.O.C., 565 U.S. 171, 188 (2012) (emphasis added). The purpose behind this exception is to prevent the state, through the enforcement of employment laws and regulations, from "depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs." Id.

         "Ministerial" in this context "does not depend upon ordination but upon the function of the position" Id. at 203 (Thomas, J., concurring)(citing Rayburn v. General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, 772 F.2d 1164, 1168 (4th Cir. 1985)). The Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor declined to apply a "rigid formula" to determine which employees qualified as a minister. Instead, the Court looked a totality of the circumstances analysis to find that the plaintiff, a teacher at a religious school, was a minister to whom the exception would apply. The factors the court considered included "the formal title given [the teacher] by the Church, the substance reflected in that title, her own use of that title, and the important religious functions she performed for the Church" Id. at 192. The Fifth Circuit likewise applied this analysis in Cannata v. Catholic Diocese of Austin, 700 F.3d 169 (5th Cir. 2012). There the Fifth Circuit found that the ministerial exception applied to a church music director. The Fifth Circuit considered the "integral role in the celebration of Mass" the plaintiff played by selecting music, teaching the choir, and playing piano during the service. Id. at 178.

         Turning to the case sub judice, NAMB argues that because McRaney was the Executive Director of the BCMD, his duties included "ministry direction, " and that because McRaney was thus the employee tasked with directing the ministry efforts of the BCMD, he qualifies as a "minister" to whom the exception applies. The Court agrees, and finds that McRaney is ...


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