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Johnson v. Hunt

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

May 26, 2015

ANDRE JOHNSON, individually and on behalf of more than 50 other Credentialed Delegates of the General Assembly of the Church of God in Christ, Inc., Plaintiff,
JAMES W. HUNT, et al., Defendants.


RONALD A. GUZMAN, District Judge.

For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's complaint is dismissed without prejudice for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Civil case terminated.


Andre Johnson ("Plaintiff") brings this suit on behalf of himself and "more than 50 other credentialed delegates of the General Assembly of the Church of God in Christ, Inc." against the Church of God in Christ, Inc. ("the Church"), James W. Hunt, Sr., Charles E. Blake, Sr., Phillip Aquina Brooks II, Lawrence H. Winbush, Frank O. White, and Jerry Wayne (collectively, "Defendants"). The complaint seeks declaratory and injunctive relief related to internal disputes regarding Church governance. (Am. Compl., Dkt. # 11.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court dismisses the complaint sua sponte because the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over this suit.


The Church is a nonprofit religious organization chartered and headquartered in Tennessee, with branches and individual members located in Illinois. (Am. Compl., Dkt. # 11 ¶ 1.) The Church is governed by its constitution, which provides for a General Assembly that passes legislative resolutions, a Judiciary Board that acts as the final authority on constitutional interpretation, and a General Board that operates akin to a board of directors in a conventional corporation. ( Id. ¶¶ 2-4.) Plaintiff is a citizen of Illinois and a pastor within the Church, and sits in the General Assembly as a credentialed delegate. ( Id. ¶ 5.) The individual Defendants are all Bishops within the Church who hold offices in the Church's governing structure, including the Chairman of the General Assembly and several members of the General Board. ( Id. ¶¶ 6-11.) None of the individual Defendants is a citizen of Illinois. ( Id. )

Plaintiff's voluminous allegations of internecine strife within the Church need not be reviewed here, as the particulars are not relevant to the limited question before the Court. Plaintiff's suit essentially urges the Court to resolve a power struggle between the Judiciary Board on one side and the General Assembly and General Board on the other, as Plaintiff believes that various actions by the individual Defendants violate procedures mandated by the Church constitution. Specifically, Count I of Plaintiff's complaint seeks declaratory relief to the effect that under the Church constitution: (1) the Chairman of the General Assembly is obligated to respect the rulings of the Judiciary Board; (2) the General Assembly is obligated to formally investigate charges Plaintiff has made against its Chairman; and (3) the General Board is obligated to initiate proceedings against the Chairman in the General Assembly. ( Id. ¶¶ 62-64.) In the event the Court declines to award such declaratory relief, Plaintiff alternately seeks a declaration that all actors within the Church must comply with the decisions of the Judiciary Board on the three issues above. ( Id. ¶ 65.) Count II seeks injunctive relief, enjoining: (1) the Chairman of the General Assembly from disobeying the directives of the Judiciary Board; (2) the General Board and the individual Defendants from disobeying the Judiciary Board; and (3) any newly-elected justices from being seated on the Judiciary Board until the Judiciary Board decides such candidates are qualified. ( Id. ¶ 79.)

Plaintiff brings this suit on his own behalf and, "with their express consent, on behalf of more than fifty (50) other duly credentialed delegates of the General Assembly" as a derivative action under Tennessee Code Annotated Section 48-56-401. ( Id. ¶ 5.) Plaintiff filed an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order on April 6, 2015, asking the Court to: (1) strip the Chairman of the General Assembly of his position pending investigation into his actions; (2) enjoining everyone else in the Church from "tampering with or otherwise interfering with" that investigation; (3) freezing the membership of the Judiciary Board to prevent any new members from being seated; and (4) enjoining any disciplinary proceedings against the Chief Justice of the Judiciary Board. (Mot. Temporary Restraining Order, Dkt. # 29.) At the April 7, 2015 hearing to address this motion, the Court expressed grave doubts as to whether it possessed subject matter jurisdiction over this dispute, and instructed the parties to file briefs addressing the matter. The Court having received and reviewed the parties' arguments, it appears that subject matter jurisdiction is lacking and Plaintiff's complaint must be dismissed without prejudice.[1]

Legal Standard

The district courts of the United States are "courts of limited jurisdiction" which "possess only that power authorized by Constitution and statute." Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of America, 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). In light of this limitation, jurisdiction will not be presumed and in all cases "the party asserting federal jurisdiction has the burden of proof to show that jurisdiction is proper." Travelers Property Cas. v. Good, 689 F.3d 714, 722 (7th Cir. 2012). A federal district court has a constitutional obligation to scrutinize complaints for jurisdictional defects, and to dismiss on its own initiative suits over which it lacks subject matter jurisdiction. See Joyce v. Joyce, 975 F.2d 379, 386 (7th Cir. 1992) ("Prompt, sua sponte recognition of flaws in subject matter jurisdiction is commendable. Indeed, it is the district court's duty to review the pleadings carefully for such defects"). Such dismissals are "hazardous, " however, when made without notice or opportunity to be heard. Shockley v. Jones, 823 F.2d 1068, 1072 (7th Cir. 1987). Accordingly, a district court considering such a dismissal "should grant the plaintiff leave to amend, allow the parties to argue the jurisdictional issue, or provide the plaintiff with the opportunity to discover the facts necessary to establish jurisdiction" unless the defect is clearly incurable. Id. at 1073.

There are two general avenues through which a plaintiff can establish subject matter jurisdiction and thereby secure a federal forum for his claims. The federal courts have original jurisdiction in "federal question" cases in which a plaintiff seeks to vindicate a federal right arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States. See 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Congress has also granted district courts original jurisdiction in "diversity" cases - civil actions between citizens of different states, between U.S. citizens and foreign citizens, or by foreign states against U.S. citizens. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Once a court has original jurisdiction over some claims in a suit, it may exercise supplemental jurisdiction over additional claims that are part of the same case or controversy. See Mine Workers v. Gibbs, 383 U.S. 715, 728 (1966).

While subject matter jurisdiction exists for federal question cases of any size, diversity cases may only be brought in federal court "where the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75, 000, exclusive of interest and costs." 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). When this jurisdictional threshold is not contested, a court must "accept the plaintiff's good faith allegation of the amount in controversy unless it appear[s] to a legal certainty that the claim is really for less than the jurisdictional amount.'" Rexford Rand Corp. v. Ancel, 58 F.3d 1215, 1218 (7th Cir. 1995) (quoting St. Paul Mercury Indem. Co. v. Red Cab Co., 303 U.S. 283, 289 (1938)). Where, however, the plaintiff's allegations regarding the amount in controversy are called into question, the plaintiff bears the burden of proving such jurisdictional facts by a preponderance of the evidence. See Meridian Sec. Ins. Co. v. Sadowski, 441 F.3d 536, 543 (7th Cir. 2006). To satisfy this burden, the plaintiff must do more than "point to the theoretical availability of certain categories of damages." Am. Bankers Life Assur. of Florida v. Evans, 319 F.3d 907, 909 (7th Cir. 2003). Once the plaintiff has established facts justifying his estimate of the amount in controversy, uncertainty about whether damages will actually exceed the threshold does not justify dismissal. See Meridian, 441 F.3d at 543.


Plaintiff's complaint asserts that the Court possesses both federal question jurisdiction over this suit under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). (Am. Compl., Dkt. # 11 ¶ 12.) With regard to federal question jurisdiction, the complaint alleges that such jurisdiction is based on the fact that "the issues requiring resolution implicate jurisprudential issues deemed to arise under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution." ( Id. ) Jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 exists only when a federal question is presented on the face of a properly pled complaint. See Caterpillar, Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987). That a plaintiff anticipates his opponent will raise a defense sounding in federal ...

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