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Biel v. St. James School

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

December 17, 2018

Kristen Biel, Plaintiff-Appellant,
St. James School, a Corp., a California non-profit corporation; Does, 2-50, inclusive; St. James Catholic School, a California nonprofit corporation; Doe 1, Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued and Submitted July 11, 2018 Pasadena, California

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California Terry J. Hatter, District Judge, Presiding D.C. No. 2:15-cv-04248-TJH-AS

          Andrew S. Pletcher (argued), Cathryn G. Fund, and Joseph M. Lovretovich, JML Law, Woodland Hills, California, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Jack Steven Sholkoff (argued), Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart P.C., Los Angeles, California; Veronica Fermin and Richard Chen, Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart P.C., Costa Mesa, California; for Defendant-Appellee.

          Susan Ruth Oxford (argued), Attorney; Barbara L. Sloan, Acting Assistant Attorney General; Jennifer S. Goldstein, Associate General Counsel; James L. Lee, Deputy General Counsel; Office of the General Counsel, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Washington, D.C.; for Amicus Curiae Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

          Before: D. Michael Fisher, [*] Paul J. Watford, and Michelle T. Friedland, Circuit Judges.

         SUMMARY [**]

         Employment Discrimination

         The panel reversed the district court's summary judgment in favor of the defendant and remanded in an employment discrimination action under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

         Based on the totality-of-the-circumstances test articulated by the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. E.E.O.C., 565 U.S. 171 (2012), the panel held that the First Amendment's ministerial exception to generally applicable employment laws did not bar a teacher's claim against the Catholic elementary school that terminated her employment. The panel concluded that she did not qualify as a minister for purposes of the exception. The panel considered whether the school held the teacher out as a minister, whether her title reflected ministerial substance and training, whether she held herself out as a minister, and whether her job duties included important religious functions.

         Dissenting, Judge Fisher wrote that, considering all of the circumstances of the teacher's employment, she was a "minister" for the purposes of the ministerial exception because of the substance reflected in her title and the important religious functions she performed.



         Plaintiff Kristin Biel was fired from her fifth grade teaching position at St. James Catholic School after she told her employer that she had breast cancer and would need to miss work to undergo chemotherapy. She now appeals the district court's summary judgment ruling that her subsequent lawsuit against St. James under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") was barred by the First Amendment's "ministerial exception" to generally applicable employment laws. We hold that, assessing the totality of Biel's role at St. James, the ministerial exception does not foreclose her claim. We therefore reverse and remand for further proceedings.


         Biel received a bachelor's degree in liberal arts and a teaching credential from California State University, Dominguez Hills. After graduating in 2009, Biel worked at two tutoring companies and as a substitute teacher at several public and private schools. St. James, a Roman Catholic parish school within the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, hired Biel in March 2013 as a long-term substitute teacher. At the end of that school year, St. James's principal hired Biel as the school's full-time fifth grade teacher. Biel is herself Catholic, and St. James prefers to hire Catholic teachers, but being Catholic is not a requirement for teaching positions at St. James. Biel had no training in Catholic pedagogy at the time she was hired. Her only such training was during her tenure at St. James: a single half-day conference where topics ranged from the incorporation of religious themes into lesson plans to techniques for teaching art classes.

         Biel taught the fifth graders at St. James all their academic subjects. Among these was a standard religion curriculum that she taught for about thirty minutes a day, four days a week, using a workbook on the Catholic faith prescribed by the school administration. Biel also joined her students in twice-daily prayers but did not lead them; that responsibility fell to student prayer leaders. She likewise attended a school-wide monthly Mass. where her sole responsibility was to keep her class quiet and orderly.

         Biel's contract stated that she would work "within [St. James's] overriding commitment" to Church "doctrines, laws, and norms" and would "model, teach, and promote behavior in conformity to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church." St. James's mission statement provides that the school "work[s] to facilitate the development of confident, competent, and caring Catholic-Christian citizens prepared to be responsible members of their church[, ] local[, ] and global communities." According to the school's faculty handbook, teachers at St. James "participate in the Church's mission" of providing "quality Catholic education to . . . students, educating them in academic areas and in . . . Catholic faith and values."[1] The faculty handbook further instructs teachers to follow not only archdiocesan curricular guidelines but also California's public-school curricular requirements.

         In November 2013, Biel received a positive teaching evaluation from St. James's principal, Sister Mary Margaret, measuring her performance in aspects both secular (e.g., her lesson planning strategies) and religious (e.g., displaying Church symbols in her classroom). The principal's written evaluation praised Biel's "very good" work promoting a safe and caring learning environment, noted that she adapted her teaching methods to accommodate her students' varied learning styles, and observed that she encouraged social development and responsibility. The principal also identified some areas for improvement: for instance, Biel's students had many items on their desks and two students were coloring in the pages of their books.

         Less than six months after that evaluation-which was her first and only formal evaluation at St. James-Biel learned that she had breast cancer and informed the school administration that her condition required her to take time off to undergo surgery and chemotherapy. Sister Mary Margaret told Biel a few weeks later that she would not renew Biel's contract for the next academic year, citing her belief that Biel's "classroom management" was "not strict" and that "it was not fair . . . to have two teachers for the children during the school year."

         Biel sued St. James in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, alleging that her termination violated the ADA, which prohibits employment discrimination based on disability. See 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). Following discovery, St. James moved for summary judgment, arguing that the First Amendment's ministerial exception to generally applicable employment laws barred Biel's ADA claims. The district court agreed and granted summary judgment for St. James.


         We review de novo a district court's grant of summary judgment. Brunozzi v. Cable Commc'ns, Inc., 851 F.3d 990, 995 (9th Cir. 2017). We also apply de novo review to determinations of law as well as to mixed questions of law and fact that implicate the Religion Clauses. Puri v. Khalsa, 844 F.3d 1152, 1157 (9th Cir. 2017).



         Religious organizations enjoy a broad right to select their own leaders. The Supreme Court confirmed in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. E.E.O.C. that, as part of that right, the First Amendment's Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses "bar the government from interfering with the decision of a religious group to fire one of its ministers." 565 U.S. 171, 181 (2012); see also U.S. Const. amend. I. The Court grounded this principle in a longstanding historical and jurisprudential concern with "political interference" in "matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine." Id. at 184, 186 (citations omitted). When the ministerial exception applies, it categorically bars an employee's suit under otherwise generally applicable employment laws. Puri v. Khalsa, 844 F.3d 1152, 1164 (9th Cir. 2017). When the ministerial exception does not apply, "courts [may] decide disputes involving religious organizations," so long as they, in accordance with the Religion Clauses, proceed "'without resolving [any] underlying controversies over religious doctrine.'" Id. (quoting Maktab Tarighe Oveyssi Shah Maghsoudi, Inc. v. Kianfar, 179 F.3d 1244, 1248 (9th Cir. 1999)). These principles guide our analysis here.

         Biel does not dispute that St. James, as a part of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, is the type of religious organization that could potentially invoke the ministerial exception as a defense. The disagreement here is over whether Biel's employment fell within the exception.

         In Hosanna-Tabor, the Supreme Court expressly declined to adopt "a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister," and instead considered "all the circumstances of [the plaintiff's] employment." 565 U.S. at 190. Hosanna-Tabor is the only case in which the Supreme Court has applied the ministerial exception, so its reasoning necessarily guides ours as we consider the circumstances here.

         Hosanna-Tabor involved a former teacher at a Lutheran school, Cheryl Perich, who alleged that the school fired her in violation of the ADA after she was diagnosed with narcolepsy. Id. at 178-79. The Court focused on four major considerations to determine if the ministerial exception applied: (1) whether the employer held the employee out as a minister, (2) whether the employee's title reflected ministerial substance and training, (3) whether the employee held herself out as a minister, and (4) whether the employee's job duties included "important religious functions." Id. at 192. Based on the totality of the circumstances, the Court concluded that Perich qualified as a minister for purposes of the ministerial exception.

         First, the evangelical Lutheran church that operated the school in Hosanna-Tabor "held Perich out as a minister, with a role distinct from that of most of its members." Id. at 191. Its congregation granted her the title of "Minister of Religion, Commissioned" after electing her to that position. Id. In conjunction with that commission, the "congregation undertook to periodically review Perich's 'skills of ministry' . . . and to provide for her 'continuing education as a professional person in the ministry of the Gospel.'" Id.

         Second, to be eligible to become a commissioned minister, Perich needed a substantial amount of religious training. She "had to complete eight college-level courses in subjects including biblical interpretation, church doctrine, and the ministry of the Lutheran teacher" and pass an oral examination by a Lutheran college faculty committee. Id. She also had to obtain the endorsement of her local Lutheran synod by submitting letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and "written answers to various ministry-related questions." Id. These training requirements took Perich six years to complete.

         Because of her status as a commissioned minister, Perich was eligible for, and succeeded in obtaining, a special category of teaching position: that of a "called" teacher. Id. at 177-78. In contrast to "lay" teachers who had one-year renewable terms, called teachers had open-ended contracts that "could be rescinded only for cause and by a supermajority vote of the congregation." Id. at 177. The school hired lay teachers only when called teachers were unavailable, even though all teachers performed the same duties in the classroom. Id.

         Third, Perich "held herself out as a minister of the Church." Id. at 191. She claimed a federal tax benefit reserved for employees "earning their compensation" in "the exercise of the ministry." Id. at 192. And she described herself as "feel[ing] that God [was] leading [her] to serve in the teaching ministry." Id.

         Fourth, Perich had an "important role in transmitting the Lutheran faith to the next generation." Id. at 192. In addition to teaching her fourth grade students various secular and religious subjects, Perich led them in prayer three times a day. Id. Twice a year, she also led a school-wide chapel service at which she "cho[se] the liturgy, select[ed] the hymns, and deliver[ed] a short message based on verses from the Bible." Id.

         Only after describing all of these aspects of Perich's position did the Supreme Court hold: "In light of these considerations-the formal title given Perich by the Church, the substance reflected in that title, her own use of that title, and the important religious functions she performed for the Church-we conclude that Perich was a minister covered by the ministerial exception." Id.

         Biel, by contrast, has none of Perich's credentials, training, or ministerial background. There was no religious component to her liberal studies degree or teaching credential. St. James had no religious requirements for her position. And, even after she began working there, her training consisted of only a half-day conference whose religious substance was limited. Unlike Perich, who joined the Lutheran teaching ministry as a calling, Biel appears to have taken on teaching work wherever she could find it: tutoring companies, multiple public schools, another Catholic school, and even a Lutheran school.

         Nor did St. James hold Biel out as a minister by suggesting to its community that she had special expertise in Church doctrine, values, or pedagogy beyond that of any practicing Catholic. St. James gave her the title "Grade 5 Teacher." Her employment was at-will and on a yearlong renewable contract, unlike Perich's unlimited term that could only be ended by a supermajority vote of the congregation. The dissent's analysis of Biel's title focuses on her duties at the school-as opposed to her education, qualifications, and employment arrangement-and thus improperly collapses considerations that the Supreme Court treated separately.[2] Looking only to what the Court treated as relevant to evaluating a job title, there is nothing religious "reflected in" Biel's title. Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S. at 192. In contrast to Perich's "Minister of Religion, Commissioned," and "called" teacher titles, it cannot be said that Grade 5 Teacher "conveys a religious-as opposed to secular-meaning."[3] Conlon v. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 777 F.3d 829, 834-35 (6th Cir. 2015).

         Also in contrast to Perich, nothing in the record indicates that Biel considered herself a minister or presented herself as one to the community. She described herself as a teacher and claimed no benefits available only to ministers.

         Only with respect to the fourth consideration in Hosanna-Tabor do Biel and Perich have anything in common: they both taught religion in the classroom. Biel taught lessons on the Catholic faith four days a week. She also incorporated religious themes and symbols into her overall classroom environment and curriculum, as the school required. We do not, however, read Hosanna-Tabor to indicate that the ministerial exception applies based on this shared characteristic alone. If it did, most of the analysis in Hosanna-Tabor would be irrelevant dicta, given that Perich's role in ...

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