The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
In High v. Wake Chapel Church, Inc., decided today by the North Carolina Court of Appeals (Judge Chris Dillon, joined by Judges Richard Dietz and Lucy Inman), plaintiff had been a member of defendant congregation:
Plaintiff commenced this action, claiming Bishop Wilkins "groomed" her for about three years beginning in 2015 when she was 15 years of age, culminating in several sexual encounters and assaults by Bishop Wilkins with and upon Plaintiff in 2018 and 2019. She asserted claims against Bishop Wilkins for his actions and against the Church based on respondeat superior and on its own negligence in its hiring, retention, and supervision of Bishop Wilkins….
Bishop Wilkins only appeals the trial court's denial of his motion to dismiss Plaintiff's claim for seduction. Bishop Wilkins contends that we have jurisdiction to consider his appeal, arguing that the claim involves ecclesiastical matters and thus affects his First Amendment rights. Indeed, our Supreme Court has recognized that a substantial right is affected when "a civil court action cannot proceed [against a church defendant] without impermissibly entangling the court in ecclesiastical matters." And when a lawsuit requires a civil court to judge a religious belief or practice, subject-matter jurisdiction is not present, and the suit fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. …
[But w]hile courts should not get involved in ecclesiastical matters, our courts may resolve claims that touch on ecclesiastical issues if they can be resolved using "neutral principles of law." We have reviewed Plaintiff's claim for seduction and agree with the trial court that this claim can be resolved using neutral principles of law. Specifically, neutral principles of law can be applied to determine whether Bishop Wilkins procured a sexual relationship with Plaintiff by "deception, enticement or other artifice." Hutchins v. Day (N.C. 1967)….
Bishop Wilkins essentially argues that the tort of seduction should be abolished in North Carolina as being outdated. However, as Bishop Wilkins concedes, our Court does not have the authority to abolish a tort recognized by our Supreme Court. Accordingly, we must affirm the trial court's order denying Bishop Wilkins' motion to dismiss Plaintiff's seduction claim as our Supreme Court has never abolished this tort. See State v. McKay (1932) (recognizing wrongful seduction as a tort)….
The Church argues the trial court erred by not dismissing Plaintiff's claims based on a theory that the Church was negligent in hiring/retaining/supervising Bishop Wilkins.
We have held that a negligent supervision claim against a church can be decided using the same standards that apply to any other employer. These cases each involved a claim against a church for negligence where a defendant clergy member sexually manipulated a congregation member. We held that such claims only involved "[t]he application of a secular standard to secular conduct that is tortious …."
The court declined to hear plaintiff's appeal from the trial court's dismissal of her sexual assault and battery charges, concluding that the dismissal could be appealed later, after the other claims are resolved.