and Submitted July 11, 2018 Pasadena, California
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
S. Pletcher (argued), Cathryn G. Fund, and Joseph M.
Lovretovich, JML Law, Woodland Hills, California, for
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.
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.
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
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
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.
FRIEDLAND, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
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
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.
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.
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." The faculty handbook further instructs
teachers to follow not only archdiocesan curricular
guidelines but also California's public-school curricular
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.
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."
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.'"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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. 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." Conlon v. InterVarsity Christian
Fellowship, 777 F.3d 829, 834-35 (6th Cir. 2015).
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.
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 ...