Florida Supreme Court to Decide Church Whistleblower Case

Archdiocese of MiamiThe Florida Supreme Court will decide whether the principal of a Miami Catholic school, who alleged that she was terminated for complaining that her immediate supervisor assaulted and battered her, has a claim under the Florida Whistleblower's Act. 

Yolanda Miñagorri, who was the principal of St. Kevin's Catholic school, alleges that in August 2005, her immediate supervisor, Father Jesus Saldaña, assaulted and battered her when he grabbed her by the arm and verbally threatened her.  She alleges that the Archdiocese of Miami subsequently terminated her employment in retaliation for her complaints about Saldaña's conduct. 

Miñagorri asserted a claim under the Florida Whistleblower Act.  Section 448.102(3) of the FWA prohibits employers from taking retaliatory action against employees who object to or refuse to participate in activities, policies or practices of the employer which are “in violation of a law, rule, or regulation.” 

However, in a March 2007 decision, the Third District Court of Appeals ruled that the claim was barred under the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine,” which precludes courts from exercising jurisdiction where an employment decision concerns a member of the clergy or an employee in a ministerial position.  This doctrine is rooted in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted as placing matters of church government and administration beyond the purview of civil authorities.  The Third DCA noted that under the ecclesiastical absention doctrine, where a claim challenges a religious institution’s employment decision, the inquiry is whether the employee is a member of the clergy or serves a ministerial function.  The parties agreed that Miñagorri was a ministerial employee.  The Third DCA concluded that "allowing the whistleblower claim to proceed would especially run afoul of the First Amendment because the requested remedy of reinstatement would require the Archdiocese to employ Miñagorri, a concededly ministerial employee."

Now the Florida Supreme Court will decide whether the Third DCA was correct.  In her appellate brief, Miñagorri argues that "[t]he First Amendment to the United States Constitution does not create an absolute bar to civil court jurisdiction over employment disputes between religious institutions and their ministerial employees."  "Rather the courts must, on a claim by claim basis, examine each claim and its elements and determine whether the court will be required to interpret religious doctrine or whether excessive entanglement is likely to result. If the court finds that it will not be required to interpret religious doctrine and that excessive entanglement is not likely to result, the court must consider the claim."  In response, the Archdiocese argues that this type of inquiry is inappropriate, because "[a] religious institution has no responsibility to tell a civil court the reason why it terminated a ministerial employee."

I will follow-up to this post as soon as the Florida Supreme Court issues its decision.

UPDATE:  The Florida Supreme Court will not review the case after all.  In a short opinion issued on July 3, 2008, the Court determined that that "jurisdiction was improvidently granted," and accordingly, discharged its jurisdiction and dismissed its review of the case.