Christakis v. Deitsch (12/1/2020)
Arizona Court of Appeals Division One holds that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine does not apply to preclude a court from resolving substantively neutral tort claims even when the claims arise against a religious backdrop.
A member of a local religious community brought claims for false light invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress against the community’s leader for several statements the leader allegedly made relating to the member’s expulsion from the community. The leader moved the court to dismiss the complaint based on the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, failure to state a claim, and failure to join an indispensable party. The superior court dismissed the claims.
The Court of Appeals affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for further proceedings. The Court held that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine did not apply. Civil courts are precluded from inquiring into ecclesiastical matters. However, when the dispute can be resolved by applying neutral principles of law, the court may adjudicate the dispute. The Court held that while the member’s expulsion from the community was an ecclesiastical matter, the complaint asked for monetary damages only for the statements made and not reinstatement in the community. Therefore, although against a religious backdrop, the Court could apply the neutral principles of the claims without implicating ecclesiastical abstention.
The Court also held that the superior court correctly concluded that the member had failed to state a claim for false light invasion of privacy because the alleged statement on which the claim was premised had only been made to two people. The Court held this did not amount to publication to the public. The Court further held that the member had alleged sufficient facts to preclude dismissal of the claim for intentional infliction of emotion distress and that there was no failure to join an indispensable party.
Chief Judge Swann authored the opinion; Judge Thumma and Judge Howe joined.