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Sterlinski v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago

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

May 1, 2017

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

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Edmond E. Chang United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Stanislaw Sterlinski filed this suit against the Catholic Bishop of Chicago, alleging national origin discrimination and retaliation, in violation of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., as well as age discrimination and retaliation, in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq.[1] R. 1, Compl.[2] In particular, Sterlinski claimed that the Catholic Bishop had demoted him because of his national origin and age, and then fired him when he complained of the demotion. Id. (Count 1 ¶ 12; Count 2 ¶ 14; Count 3 ¶ 12; Count 5 ¶ 18). In August 2016, the Court dismissed Sterlinski's complaint without prejudice on the ground that Sterlinski's claims are barred by the First Amendment's “ministerial exception.” R. 23, 8/23/16 Opinion at 2.

         Sterlinski has since filed an amended complaint, asserting all of the same claims, but this time alleging how the demotion affected his job duties as the church's Director of Music. R. 24, Am. Compl. (Count 1 ¶ 13).[3] This is the only substantive difference between the original and amended complaints. The Catholic Bishop now moves to dismiss Sterlinski's amended complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), arguing that the ministerial exception still bars Sterlinski's claims. R. 26, Mot. to Dismiss Am. Compl. For the reasons stated below, the Catholic Bishop's motion is granted in part and denied in part, and limited discovery is directed on the issue of whether Sterlinski was a “minister”-within the meaning of the ministerial exception-at the time of his firing.

         I. Background

         For the purposes of this motion, the Court accepts as true the allegations in Sterlinski's amended complaint. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). Sterlinski was hired by the Catholic Bishop in July 1992 to serve as the Director of Music at St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Parish. Am. Compl. (Count 1 ¶¶ 9, 11-12). Sterlinski's duties as Director of Music included: selecting liturgical music, teaching music to the children at Polish School, participating in the budget process, attending Archdiocesan Music Committee activities, and holding practices for the church choirs.[4] See id. (Count 1 ¶ 13). Sterlinski was also required to maintain his own music skills. Id.

         In June 2014, Sterlinski was demoted from a full-time position to a part-time position without benefits. Am. Compl. (Count 1 ¶¶ 12, 14). Sterlinski, who is of Polish descent, was 68 years old at the time. Id. (Count 1 ¶ 10; Count 3 ¶ 9). As a result of the demotion, all of Sterlinski's duties as Director of Music were taken away, and he became a “mere[] … organist” at church functions. Id. (Count 1 ¶ 13 (internal quotation marks omitted)).

         The Catholic Bishop claims that Sterlinski was demoted because of a budgetary deficit. Am. Compl. (Count 1 ¶ 15). Sterlinski, however, alleges that this explanation is pretextual because the church's financial records suggest that it had a profit of $82, 000 as of November 1, 2014, which was $20, 000 more than in 2013. Id. (Count 1 ¶ 16). Sterlinski contends that he was actually demoted because of his national origin and age. Id. (Count 1 ¶ 12; Count 3 ¶ 12). He bases this on the fact that the pastor that demoted him had made comments about Sterlinski (1) not being “Roman” and (2) “getting old.” Id. (Count 1 ¶ 17; Count 3 ¶ 17 (internal quotation marks omitted)).

         Sterlinski complained to the Catholic Bishop about his national-origin and age-based demotion, Am. Compl. (Count 2 ¶ 20; Count 5 ¶ 18), and-in December 2014-he was fired, id. (Count 1 ¶ 18). Sterlinski then filed a discrimination charge with the Illinois Department of Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the Catholic Bishop, alleging national origin and age discrimination, as well as retaliatory discharge.[5] R. 24-1, Exh. A, Discrimination Charge. The EEOC issued a right to sue letter, see R. 24-1, Exh. B, Right to Sue Letter, and Sterlinski brought this lawsuit.

         In his original complaint, Sterlinski claimed that the Catholic Bishop had discriminated against him-by demoting and terminating him-because of his age and national origin, in violation of Title VII and the ADEA. Compl. (Count 1 ¶¶ 12-19; Count 5 ¶¶ 12-19). Sterlinski also claimed that the Catholic Bishop had retaliated against him-by firing him-for complaining about his discriminatory demotion, in violation of Title VII and the ADEA. Id. (Count 2 ¶¶ 9-21; Count 5 ¶¶ 8-19). Finally, Sterlinski claimed that the Catholic Bishop's violations of the ADEA were intentional and in reckless disregard of his rights. Id. (Count 4 ¶ 22). The Catholic Bishop moved to dismiss Sterlinski's complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) on the ground that his claims were barred by the First Amendment's ministerial exception. R. 9, Mot. to Dismiss Original Compl. The Court granted the motion to dismiss, but without prejudice to give Sterlinski a chance to amend his complaint. 8/23/16 Opinion at 2.

         Sterlinski has since filed a new complaint, asserting the same causes of action, but this time alleging how his job duties changed after he was demoted. See Am. Compl. The Catholic Bishop now moves to dismiss Sterlinski's amended complaint under Rule 12(b)(6), arguing that his claims are still barred by the ministerial exception. See Mot. to Dismiss Am. Compl.; R. 28, Def.'s Br.

         II. Legal Standard

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), a complaint must contain “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 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.

         As explained in the prior Opinion, the ministerial exception is actually an affirmative defense, see Hosanna Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. E.E.O.C., 565 U.S. 171, 195 n.4 (2012), and is neither an exception to subject matter jurisdiction nor even a failure to state a claim. 8/23/16 Opinion at 5. Sterlinski, however, has not objected to the Catholic Bishop's use of Rule 12(b)(6) and the applicable legal standard is basically the same: the Court must decide whether, assuming the facts alleged in ...


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