United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Honorable Edmond E. Chang United States District Judge.
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.R. 1, Compl. 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
purposes of this motion, the Court accepts as true the
allegations in Sterlinski’s complaint. 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); 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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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
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.”).
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.
Sterlinski was employed as the Director of Music. Hiring
Contract at 1. 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 ...