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Sterlinski v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago

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

August 23, 2016

STANISLAW STERLINSKI, Plaintiff,
v.
THE CATHOLIC BISHOP OF CHICAGO, a Corporation Sole, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Honorable Edmond E. Chang United States District Judge.

         Stanislaw Sterlinski brings this suit against the Catholic Bishop of Chicago (in its corporate form), alleging national origin discrimination and retaliation pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the Civil Rights Act of 1991, and age discrimination and retaliation pursuant to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et. seq.[1]R. 1, Compl.[2] Specifically, Sterlinski alleges that the Catholic Bishop discriminated against him on the bases of his age and national origin by demoting him from a fulltime position to a part-time one. Id. He further alleges that the Catholic Bishop then retaliated against him for complaining about this alleged discrimination by firing him. Id. The Catholic Bishop now moves to dismiss Sterlinski’s complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) on the ground that Sterlinski’s claims are barred by the “ministerial exception.” R. 9, Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss. For the reasons stated below, the Catholic Bishop’s motion is granted and the case is dismissed, but without prejudice to give Sterlinski a chance to amend his complaint.

         I. Background

         For purposes of this motion, the Court accepts as true the allegations in Sterlinski’s complaint.[3] Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). Sterlinski, who is of Polish descent, was hired by the Catholic Bishop of Chicago in July 1992 as the Director of Music at St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Church. Compl. (Count 1 ¶¶ 9-11)[4]; R. 1-1, Exh. C, Hiring Contract. Sterlinski’s duties included: “[s]upervision of, and responsibility for, all music at liturgical celebrations”; “[c]ooperat[ing] with [the] Parish Liturgy Committee … in the selection, preparation, and teaching of music for the congregation”; “[f]urnishing … music and accompaniment at weekend, Holyday, and weekday Masses”; “[p]roviding appropriate music for weddings and funerals”; rehearsing with the parish choir; “[d]evelop[ing] and participat[ing] in a general music education program for [the parish] and the school”; and maintaining his own skills and professional knowledge. Hiring Contract at 1-2.

         From the time he was hired up until his firing, Sterlinski alleges he fulfilled his contract and met the expectations of his employer. Compl. (Count 1 ¶ 19). Yet, in June 2014, Sterlinski was demoted from full-time to part-time, which reduced his salary, schedule, and benefits. Id. (Count 1 ¶¶ 12, 14). Sterlinski was 68 years old at the time of his demotion. Id. (Count 3 ¶ 9). The Catholic Bishop asserted the demotion was due to a budgetary deficit. Id. (Count 1 ¶ 15). But Sterlinski contends it was due to his national origin and age, citing to comments made by the church’s pastor, namely, that he (the pastor) was not Polish but rather “Roman, ” and that Sterlinski was “getting old.” Id. (Count 1 ¶¶ 12-13; Count 3 ¶ 13). Following his demotion, Sterlinski filed a discrimination charge with the Illinois Department of Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the Catholic Bishop in April 2015, alleging national origin and age discrimination, as well as retaliation. See id. (Count 1 ¶ 5; Count 2 ¶ 5; Count 3 ¶ 6; Count 5 ¶ 5); R. 1-1, Exh. A, Discrimination Charge. In December 2015, Sterlinski was fired. Compl. (Count 1 ¶ 17).

         This lawsuit followed. Sterlinski alleges the Catholic Bishop discriminated against him on the bases of age and national origin by demoting him for a pre-textual reason, namely, budgetary concerns, in violation of Title VII and the ADEA. Id. (Count 1 ¶¶ 1-21, Count 3 ¶¶ 5-20). Sterlinski also alleges the Catholic Bishop retaliated against him for complaining of this discrimination by firing him, in violation of Title VII and the ADEA. Id. (Count 2 ¶¶ 1-23; Count 5 ¶¶ 1-21). Finally, Sterlinski alleges the Catholic Bishop’s violations of the ADEA were intentional and in reckless disregard for his rights. Id. (Count 4 ¶¶ 21-22). The Catholic Bishop now moves to dismiss Sterlinski’s complaint under Rule 12(b)(6). Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss.

         II. Legal Standard

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), a complaint generally need only include “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). This short and plain statement must “give the defendant fair notice of what the … claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The Seventh Circuit has explained that this rule “reflects a liberal notice pleading regime, which is intended to ‘focus litigation on the merits of a claim’ rather than on technicalities that might keep plaintiffs out of court.” Brooks v. Ross, 578 F.3d 574, 580 (7th Cir. 2009) (quoting Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 514 (2002)).

         “A motion under Rule 12(b)(6) challenges the sufficiency of the complaint to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.” Hallinan v. Fraternal Order of Police of Chi. Lodge No. 7, 570 F.3d 811, 820 (7th Cir. 2009). “[A] complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). These allegations “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. The allegations that are entitled to the assumption of truth are those that are factual, rather than mere legal conclusions. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79.

         To be precise, the defense’s dismissal motion relies on the “ministerial exception, ” which is actually an affirmative defense, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. E.E.O.C., 132 S.Ct. 694, 709 n.4 (2012), and thus is neither an argument for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, id., nor, technically speaking, an argument that the complaint fails to state a claim. But neither side contends that the affirmative-defense nature of the ministerial exception makes a difference, and the legal standard ends up being the same in this situation: assuming the facts alleged are true, would the ministerial exception apply?

         III. Analysis

         The Catholic Bishop’s sole contention in its dismissal motion is that all of Sterlinski’s claims are barred by the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception, ” because of the position Sterlinski held in the church. R. 10, Def.’s Br. at 1, 3-4. The “ministerial exception, ” which is grounded in the First Amendment’s Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses, bars employment discrimination suits brought by “ministers” against their religious institutions. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. E.E.O.C., 132 S.Ct. 694, 705-06 (2012). The exception is designed to prevent government intrusion into a church’s decision of who can act as its ministers. Id. at 709 (“The exception … ensures that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful-a matter ‘strictly ecclesiastical[]’ … -is the church’s alone.” (internal citation omitted)). Although the exception was originally developed in conjunction with Title VII, its application has been extended to claims brought under the ADA and the ADEA as well. Id. at 705-07 (applying exception to ADA claim); Tomic v. Catholic Diocese of Peoria, 442 F.3d 1036, 1040-43 (7th Cir. 2006) (applying exception to ADEA claim). See also Hosanna-Tabor, 132 S.Ct. at 705-06 (“Since the passage of Title VII … and other employment discrimination laws, the Courts of Appeals have uniformly recognized the existence of a “ministerial exception, ” … [w]e agree that there is such a[n] … exception.”).

         Whether the exception applies in a given case depends on whether the plaintiff qualifies as “a minister.” Id. at 709; see also Collette v. The Archdiocese of Chicago, 2016 WL 4063167, at *2 (N.D. Ill. July 29, 2016). Of course, the exception applies to individuals formally ordained as ministers, but it is not limited to just those individuals. Alicea-Hernandez v. Catholic Bishop of Chi., 320 F.3d 698, 703 (7th Cir. 2003). In determining whether an employee qualifies as a minister, a court’s focus is on the function of the plaintiff’s position, not just job title. Hosanna-Tabor, 132 S.Ct. at 707; Alicea-Hernandez, 320 F.3d at 703. Because there is no “rigid formula” for determining whether an employee is a minister, Hosanna-Tabor, 132 S.Ct. at 707, a court’s analysis is “both factual and case-specific.” Collette, 2016 WL 4063167, at *2. Considerations include: a plaintiff’s job duties, and whether they “reflected a role in conveying the [religious institution’s] message and carrying out its mission”; “the formal title given [to the plaintiff] by the Church”; “the substance reflected in that title”; whether the plaintiff held herself out as a minister; and whether the plaintiff performed “important religious functions … for the Church.” Hosanna-Tabor, 132 S.Ct. at 708. Although other case-specific factors can be considered, see Collette, 2016 WL 4063167, at *2; Cannata v. Catholic Diocese of Austin, 700 F.3d 169, 177 (5th Cir. 2012), the Supreme Court has cautioned against placing “too much emphasis” on a plaintiff’s “performance of secular duties, ” or on the amount of time a plaintiff’s secular duties consumed. Hosanna-Tabor, 132 S.Ct. at 708-09.

         Here, Sterlinski was employed as the Director of Music. Hiring Contract at 1.[5] He was responsible for-among other things-selecting and supervising “all music at liturgical celebrations, ” “[f]urnishing suitable music and accompaniment at weekend, Holyday, and weekday Masses, ” as well as at “weddings and funerals, ” and also for helping with the “selection, preparation and teaching of music for the congregation.” Id. Although not a minister in title, those job duties spelled out in the job contract “reflected a role in conveying the Church’s message.” Hosanna-Tabor, 132 S.Ct. at 708. As the Seventh Circuit has pointed out, music is “‘an integral part of many different religious traditions, ’ including the Catholic tradition.” Tomic, 442 F.3d at 1041 (quoting E.E.O.C. v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, N.C. , 213 F.3d 795, 802-03 (4th Cir. 2000)). It is “a vital means of expressing and celebrating those beliefs which a religious community holds most sacred.” Id. at 1040-41. By selecting and supervising the music that was to be played at masses and other liturgical celebrations, Sterlinski performed an important role in conveying the Catholic Church’s message through the chosen musical expression, which means that he had ministerial duties. Id.; Roman Catholic Diocese, 213 F.3d at 797 (affirming dismissal of director of music ministry’s Title VII claims because her duties “consisted of the selection, presentation, and teaching of music, which is integral to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the Catholic Church”); Starkman v. Evans, 198 F.3d 173, 175-76 (5th Cir. 1997) (extending ministerial exception to choirmaster and ...


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