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Sterlinski v. The Catholic Bishop of Chicago

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

July 23, 2018




         Plaintiff Stanislaw Sterlinski filed this suit against the Catholic Bishop of Chicago, alleging national origin discrimination and retaliation under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., as well as age discrimination and retaliation under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq.[1] R. 1, Compl.[2] In particular, Sterlinski alleges that he was demoted from his position as a local parish's Director of Music because he is Polish and due to his age, and then was fired when he complained about the demotion. Id. (Count 1 ¶ 12; Count 2 ¶ 14; Count 3 ¶ 12; Count 5 ¶ 18).

         Earlier in the case, the Court dismissed the initial complaint because the allegations themselves established that Sterlinski was a “minister” for purposes of the “ministerial exception”-that is, the exception to employment-discrimination laws dictated by the First Amendment's religion clauses. R. 23, 8/23/16 Opinion at 7-13. Sterlinski then 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). That is the only substantive difference between the original complaint and the amended one. The Catholic Bishop moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), arguing that the ministerial exception still barred the claims. R. 26, Mot. to Dismiss Am. Compl. The Court granted the Catholic Bishop's motion as it pertained to Sterlinski's claims arising from the demotion, but denied it as it pertained to his firing. R. 37, 05/01/17 Opinion at 8. Instead, the Court authorized limited discovery on the issue of whether Sterlinski was a “minister” within the meaning of the ministerial exception at the time of his firing. Id. at 10. After conducting discovery on that limited issue, the Catholic Bishop moved for summary judgment, R. 44, Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., and Sterlinski cross-moved, R. 56, Pl.'s Resp. and Cross-Mot. Summ. J. For the reasons stated below, summary judgment is granted to the Catholic Bishop. Sterlinski's cross-motion for summary judgment is denied.

         I. Background

         The Catholic Bishop hired Sterlinski in July 1992 to serve as the Director of Music at St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Parish. R. 57, PSOF ¶¶ 6-7.[3] In June 2014, [4] Sterlinski was demoted from a full-time position to a part-time position without benefits. Id. ¶¶ 8, 10-11. As a result of the demotion, Sterlinski's duties as Director of Music were taken away: he no longer participated in the budget process; he was not sent to Archdiocesan Music Committee activities; his access to the church became limited; he became responsible for maintaining his own music skills; he no longer taught music to the children at Polish School; and he no longer held practices for the church choirs. Id. ¶¶ 13, 30. After the demotion, Sterlinski performed only the duties of organist at church functions. Id. ¶ 25; DSOF ¶ 6. And, even as the organist, he no longer had any discretion in picking what music to perform during Mass. PSOF ¶ 27. Instead, he played music selected by the Parish Pastor, Father Dziorek, in the traditional style and manner. Id. ¶¶ 26-27. Sterlinski followed the instructions of the sheet music when playing during Mass, without any changes or improvisation. Id. ¶¶ 26, 28-29. The parties disagree on whether Sterlinski's job title changed from Director of Music to Organist after his demotion. R. 57, Pl.'s Resp. DSOF ¶ 5. But neither party disputes that Sterlinski was not formally ordained. R. 59, Def.'s Resp. PSOF ¶ 20. Sometime after the demotion, [5] Sterlinski was fired. PSOF ¶ 14.

         At this stage of the case, the key dispute is the importance of music-and, more specifically, the importance of instrumentalists-to Catholic Worship at Mass. In support of its contention that music serves a ministerial function during Mass, the Catholic Bishop relies on two sources: (1) the expert affidavit of D. Todd Williamson, the Director of the Office for Divine Worship, Archdiocese of Chicago; and (2) a document issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, entitled Sing to the Lord, Music in Divine Worship, which provides guidance and direction in all matters of Liturgical Music. DSOF ¶¶ 10-28. The Catholic Bishop argues that music and singing are integral elements of Catholic Worship, and that when music is played and sung at Mass, it becomes “sung prayer, ” that is, “prayer that is supported and directed by instrumental music being played.” DSOF ¶ 14. According to the Catholic Bishop, all musicians at Mass-including the organist-“exercise a genuine liturgical ministry” by leading and sustaining the assembly's sung prayer. Id. ¶¶ 21-22. Of the instruments used during Mass, “the organ is accorded pride of place.” Id. ¶ 26.

         Against this, Sterlinski asserts that instrumental music, including organ music, is not necessary to a Catholic Mass. or Worship. Pl.'s Resp. DSOF ¶¶ 13-14, 16, 21-28; PSOF ¶¶ 18, 34. As an organist with no discretion in what music was played or how he played it, Sterlinski contends that his role was neither necessary nor ministerial-and in fact could be replaced with recorded music. PSOF ¶¶ 18-19, 24, 26-29, 32, 34.

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment must be granted “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A genuine issue of material fact exists if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). In evaluating summary judgment motions, courts must view the facts and draw reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007). The Court may not weigh conflicting evidence or make credibility determinations, Omnicare, Inc. v. UnitedHealth Grp., Inc., 629 F.3d 697, 704 (7th Cir. 2011), and must consider only evidence that can “be presented in a form that would be admissible in evidence.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(2). The party seeking summary judgment has the initial burden of showing that there is no genuine dispute and that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Carmichael v. Village of Palatine, 605 F.3d 451, 460 (7th Cir. 2010); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); Wheeler v. Lawson, 539 F.3d 629, 634 (7th Cir. 2008). If this burden is met, the adverse party must then “set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256.

         III. Analysis

         A. Ministerial Exception

         The First Amendment's religion clauses dictate that there is a ministerial exception to employment discrimination laws, namely, that “ministers” cannot pursue employment claims against their religious-institution employers. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. E.E.O.C., 565 U.S. 171, 190 (2012) (applying ministerial exception to Title VII claim); Tomic v. Catholic Diocese of Peoria, 442 F.3d 1036, 1041 (7th Cir. 2006) (applying ministerial exception to ADEA claim).[6] The purpose of the exception is to ensure “that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful-a matter strictly ecclesiastical-is the church's alone.” Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S. at 194-95 (cleaned up).[7]

         Naturally, the exception's applicability depends on whether the plaintiff-employee qualifies as a “minister.” Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S. at 190; see also Alicea-Hernandez v. Catholic Bishop of Chi., 320 F.3d 698, 703 (7th Cir. 2003). For the purposes of the ministerial exception, a “minister” can be someone other than “the head of a religious congregation.” Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S. at 190. In fact, there is no “rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister.” Id. Rather, to determine whether a plaintiff qualifies as a minister, courts must engage in “a fact-intensive analysis, ” Grussgott v. Milwaukee Jewish Day Sch., Inc., 882 F.3d 655, 657 (7th Cir. 2018), considering factors including, but not limited to, the plaintiff's job duties, and whether they “reflected a role in conveying the Church'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 himself out as a minister; and whether the plaintiff performed “important religious functions … for the Church, ” Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S. at 192; see also Grussgott, 882 F.3d at 659-661 (holding that, although employee's job title was “grade school teacher, ” the exception applied because she taught the Jewish religion to students); Tomic, 442 F.3d at 1040-41 (holding that exception applied to director of music because he selected music to be played at Mass. and played the chosen music, thus performing religiously significant tasks). As discussed below, the key factor is the role of music in the Church's religious services, so the Court will tackle that issue first, and then address the secondary considerations (that is, Sterlinski's formal job title and how he was held out to others).

         B. The Role of Music in ...

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