The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit against Fr. Don LaCuesta and the Archdiocese of Detroit by the Monroe County Circuit Court in Hullibarger v Archdiocese of Detroit, et al., unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals decided July 8, 2021 (Docket No. 354439).
Maison Hullibarger, a 18-year old from Temperance, Michigan, tragically lost his life to suicide. How he died was not information disclosed outside of family or close friends at the time. The parents went to Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, a Catholic church, and spoke with Fr. LaCuesta regarding plans for their son’s funeral. The parents explicitly told Fr. LaCuesta that “they wanted to celebrate their son’s life and asked that the homily be positive, uplifting, and focused on the importance of kindness.” He agreed. However, the subject of suicide or whether Fr. LaCuesta was even aware of the cause of death was not discussed.
The Hullibargers indicated the following occurred on December 8, 2018:
- ‘On the day of the funeral, “numerous family [members], friends, classmates, and community members” were in attendance. Once the service began, it “progressed as expected” until Father LaCuesta gave his homily. At that point, Father LaCuesta informed those in attendance that plaintiff’s son had committed suicide. According to plaintiff’s allegations, “[m]any in attendance… immediately became upset and burst out crying.” Father LaCuesta’s discussion of suicide stated that it was “condemned by the Church,” a “secular crime,” and “a sin against God with dire eternal consequences.” As Father LaCuesta’s sermon progressed, [Mr. Hullibarger] approached the pulpit and “pleaded” with Father LaCuesta to stop his discussion of suicide. But Father LaCuesta did not relent and “openly question[ed] the eternal fate” of the Hullibargers’ son. After Father LaCuesta ended the funeral service, without allowing the family to say their final words, [Mr. Hullibarger] intervened once more. The funeral ended, and the Hullibargers informed Father LaCuesta he was not welcome at the gravesite service.’ Slip op at 2.
After the funeral, the Hullibargers learned that Fr. LaCuesta has engaged in this conduct before during funeral services. They met with the Archbishop in Detroit, MI to try to discuss the matter, but that engagement did not satisfy their concerns.
The Hullibargers sued Fr. LaCuesta and the Archdiocese in circuit court, alleging the following torts:
- Count 1 – Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress – claiming that Father LaCuesta’s disclosure of the suicide and his subsequent sermon, despite the Hullibarger’s pleas not to do so, was “extreme” and “outrageous”, and actually caused the Hullibargers to lose faith in their religion.
- Count 2 – Misrepresentation – claiming that Father LaCuesta agreed to deliver a positive sermon but, instead, spoke about “the nature of her son’s death,” and how it constituted a sinful act that brought into question “her son’s eternal salvation.”
- Count 3 – Invasion of Privacy – claiming that Father LaCuesta’s should have known that the cause of death “was a personal matter and not of public concern”, and that his disclosure of the cause of death ““was not consistent with any legitimate pastoral duty and/or concern to the public.”
- Count 4 – Vicarious Liability – claiming that the Archdiocese of Detroit should also be liable for Father LaCuesta’s actions since he as under the supervision and control of the Archdiocese… and he “act[ed] in his special role of priest and adviser, using the premises of the Archdiocese’s parish,” and the “trust, power and the authority his position granted him.”
- Count 5 – Negligent Hiring, Supervision, or Retention – claiming that the Archdiocese of Detroit knew or should have known that Father LaCuesta was “unfit and/or incompetent to perform” his pastoral duties and that he previously engaged in similar conduct in other sermons. Despite this knowledge, they claimed the Archdiocese acted in negligence in hiring, supervising and retaining him, so they share in his liability.
The lawsuit sought various compensatory and putative damages from the Defendants.
Venue was changed from Wayne County circuit court to Monroe County circuit court. The Defendants immediately filed a motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(8), which means they believe they are entitled to judgment in their favor based on the complaint alone. Basically, even if everything that the Hullibargers said was true, they argued that the “ecclesiastical absention doctrine” excused them from liability to these allegations. Under the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, the Michigan Supreme Court has said that it would be “inconsistent with complete and untrammeled religious liberty” for civil courts to “enter into a consideration of church doctrine or church discipline,” to “inquire into the regularity of the proceedings of church tribunals having cognizance of such matters,” or “to determine whether a resolution was passed in accordance with the canon law of the church, except insofar as it may be necessary to do so, in determining whether or not it was the church that acted therein.” Winkler v Marist Fathers of Detroit, Inc, 500 Mich 327, 337-338; 901 NW2d 566 (2017). IN laymen’s terms, the ecclesiastical absention doctrine “operates to ensure that, in adjudicating a particular case, a civil court does not infringe the religious freedoms and protections guaranteed under the First Amendment.” Winkler, 500 Mich at 339. If the “actual adjudication of a particular legal claim would require the resolution of ecclesiastical questions”, then “the court must abstain from resolving those questions itself, defer to the religious entity’s resolution of such questions, and adjudicate the claim accordingly.” Winkler, 500 Mich at 341. This is done on a case-by-case basis.
In this case, the Monroe County circuit court agreed with the defendants and found that “resolution of plaintiff’s claims would require a decision regarding matters of church doctrine and polity and, therefore, the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applied to bar plaintiff’s claims.” Slip op at 4. On that basis, the motion for summary disposition was granted and the lawsuit was dismissed. The Hullibargers appealed.
The Michigan Court of Appeals agreed with the Defendants and the trial court, finding that the outcome of this case was controlled by the First Amendment.
- “Father LaCuesta’s conduct was protected by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. As such, we cannot pass judgment on the content of his sermon. Consequently, all of plaintiff’s claims necessarily fail. Count Three fails for the additional reason that plaintiff alleges no cognizable privacy interest which was invaded. We therefore affirm the trial court’s order granting summary disposition to defendants.” Slip op at 7.
The Plaintiffs may elect to appeal this decision to the Michigan Supreme Court, but that remains to be seen.
This matter has been difficult for all involved. Almost immediately after the incident, Father LaCuesta and the Archdiocese publicly apologized for failing to provide comfort to this family during a difficult time. However, the guarantees of religious freedom provided by the First Amendment barred any recovery because it puts the court in the difficult position of regulating content in religious sermons. While this is determined on a case-by-case basis, an incredible amount of deference must be given to the church to avoid crossing the line and infringing on constitutional guarantees. If there is a solution to the Plaintiffs’ concern, it likely can’t be found in a court of law.
If you or a loved one have legal questions or need representation in court, then do not hesitate to contact the experienced attorneys at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC today.