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Fratello v. Archdiocese of New York

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

July 14, 2017

Joanne Fratello, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Archdiocese of New York, St. Anthony's Shrine Church, and St. Anthony's School, Defendants-Appellees[*]

          Argued: March 7, 2017

         The plaintiff is a former principal of a Roman Catholic school who claims that she was terminated from that position on the basis of unlawful gender discrimination and retaliation. The sole question on appeal is whether the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Cathy Seibel, Judge) erred in awarding the defendants summary judgment on the ground that the plaintiffs employment-discrimination claims are barred by the "ministerial exception/ a doctrine based on the First Amendment that precludes such claims by "ministers" against the religious groups that employ them. We conclude that the plaintiffs claims are barred because she is a minister within the meaning of the exception. Although her formal title was not inherently religious, the record reflects that, as part of her job responsibilities, she held herself out as a spiritual leader of the school and performed many religious functions to advance its religious mission. Accordingly, the district court's judgment is:

          Michael David Diederich, Jr., Stony Point, NY, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Eric C. Rassbach (Lori Halstead Windham, Daniel H. Blomberg; James P. McCabe, Roderick J. Cassidy, Archdiocese of New York, New York, NY; Kenneth A. Novikoff, Barry I. Levy, Rivkin Radler LLP, Uniondale, NY, on the brief), The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Washington, D.C., for Defendants-Appellees.

          Leslie Griffin, UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law, Las Vegas, NV (on the brief), for amici curiae Call to Action, DignityUSA, FutureChurch, The National Coalition of American Nuns, New Ways Ministry, and Voice of the Faithful.

          Stephen Bergstein, Bergsten & Ullrich, LLP, New Paltz, NY (on the brief), for amicus curiae National Employment Lawyers Association/New York.

          Victoria Dorfman, Todd Geremia, Lauren Pardee Ruben, Jones Day, New York, NY (on the brief), for amici curiae Douglas Laycock, Michael W. McConnell, Thomas C. Berg, Carl H. Esbeck, Richard W. Garnett, Paul Horwitz, and John D. Inazu.

          Paul J. Zidlicky, Sidley Austin LLP, Washington, D.C. (on the brief), for amici curiae Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles and Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

          Erik W. Stanley, Jeremiah Galus, Alliance Defending Freedom, Scottsdale, AZ (on the brief), for amicus curiae Orthodox Church in America.

          Before: Sack and Lohier, Circuit Judges, and Woods, District Judge. [**]

          Sack, Circuit Judge

         Plaintiff-appellant Joanne Fratello, former principal of a Roman Catholic school, alleges that she was terminated from that position on the basis of unlawful gender discrimination and retaliation. The defendants-the school, the church, and the archdiocese-moved for summary judgment on the ground that these claims are barred by the "ministerial exception, " a doctrine that precludes, on First Amendment grounds, employment-discrimination claims by "ministers" against the religious organizations that employ or formerly employed them. The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Cathy Seibel, Judge) awarded the defendants summary judgment on that basis. The sole question on appeal is whether Fratello is a "minister" within the meaning of the exception, a conclusion that would preclude her employment-discrimination claims against the defendants.

         Although we have previously recognized a ministerial exception for employment-discrimination claims, this is our first occasion to address the doctrine since the Supreme Court's unanimous decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171, 188 (2012) (recognizing a ministerial exception for employment-discrimination claims). In light of that decision, we conclude that in determining whether the ministerial exception bars an employment-discrimination claim against a religious organization, the only question is whether the employee qualifies as a "minister-within the meaning of the exception. See id. at 190-91. In this regard, Hosanna-Tabor instructs us to assess a broad array of relevant "considerations, " including but not limited to (1) the employee's "formal title, " (2) "the substance reflected in that title, " (3) the employee's "use of th[e] title, " and (4) "the important religious functions she performed." Id. at 192.

         Applying these principles here, we conclude that the ministerial exception bars Fratello's employment-discrimination claims because in her role as principal she was a minister within the meaning of the exception. Although her formal title was not inherently religious, we think that the record clearly establishes that she held herself out as a spiritual leader of the school, and that she performed many significant religious functions to advance its religious mission. She was thus a "minister" for purposes of the exception.


         Fratello was employed by St. Anthony's School (the "School"), a Roman Catholic elementary school located in Nanuet, New York. She served as the School's principal from 2007 until 2011, when the School declined to renew her contract. She claims employment discrimination by the School, St. Anthony's Shrine Church (the "Church"), and the Archdiocese of New York (the "Archdiocese"), alleging that her employment was terminated on the basis of gender discrimination and in retaliation for her reporting the alleged discrimination, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and New York State Executive Law § 296. The defendants argue as an affirmative defense that the ministerial exception bars these claims.

         A. Mission of Archdiocese Schools

         The Archdiocese is a constituent entity of the Roman Catholic Church covering ten counties in southern New York.[1] It is led by an Archbishop, currently Timothy Cardinal Dolan. According to the Administrative Manual for its schools (the "Manual"), the Archdiocese has for more than two centuries provided elementary schools for "ethnically and economically diverse student population[s] in urban and suburban settings." Manual, Chapter I: Goals, Mission and Aim of Catholic Education in the Archdiocese, at App'x at 121.

         The Manual sets forth the principles on which the School and others within the Archdiocese are to operate.[2] According to the Manual, the "foundation and mission" of these schools is "formation in the faith, for the lived experience of Gospel values and for the preservation of Catholic culture." Id., at App'x at 122. They seek to train students "to be disciples of Jesus Christ who will live [by] their faith and provide intelligent, creative, and generous service to the human community." Id., at App'x at 121.[3] The schools are told to advance their mission through, among other things, the "explicit study of the Catholic faith." Id., at App'x at 121; see also id. ¶ 104, at App'x at 123 ("Gospel teaching . . . is the fundamental element in the educative process . . . ."). Indeed, religion is taught in Archdiocese schools at every grade level, through eighth grade, as a distinct class treated administratively in the same manner as those on other academic subjects.

         The Manual states that the Cardinal Archbishop is "[u]ltimate[ly] responsib[le]" for meeting these goals. Id. ¶ 200, at App'x at 125. He "delegates responsibility for representing him in administrative and educational matters to the Secretary for Education and the Superintendent of Schools." Id. Specific local schools are entrusted to the Parish Pastor, who "delegates the immediate direction of the school and its instructional program to the principal." Id. ¶ 300, at App'x at 128.

          B. Principal's Role

         The Manual begins with a cover letter from Edward Cardinal Egan (the late former Archbishop) to principals of Archdiocese schools. It describes "principals in the [Archdiocese] schools" as "having accepted the vocation and challenge of leadership in Catholic education." Cover Letter from Edward Cardinal Egan (Dec. 2006), at App'x at 110. It further states that (1) the "principals . . . are providing splendid leadership to [] teachers and staff and excellent academic and spiritual formation to [] studentsʺ; and (2) principals "must fulfill" "administrative tasks . . . providing the structure needed to carry out the vital work of Catholic education . . . infused with the Catholic Faith and values that are so needed by the young people who come to [Archdiocese schools]." Id.

         The Manual also explicates the principal's job description: "The principal is the Catholic leader and the administrative head of the school [who] is responsible for the effective operation of the school as an educational institution within the total [P]arish educational program." Manual ¶ 320, at App'x at 132.[4] The principal provides "Catholic leadership" by:

[1] cooperat[ing] with the [P]astor in recruiting and maintaining a staff committed to the goals of a Catholic school; [2] cooperat[ing] with the [P]astor in his religious ministry to the students; [3] ensur[ing] adherence to the curriculum guidelines, Guidelines for Catechesis, 1998; [4] monitor[ing] the acquisition of catechetical certification for teachers of religion[;] [5] direct[ing] the implementation of the religious education program[;] . . . [6] commit[ing] to the mission of evangelization[;] [7] involv[ing] the staff in formulating plans that enable the school to meet its religious goals; [8] provid[ing] opportunities for student, faculty, and parent participation in liturgical and paraliturgical services; [9] intitiat[ing] programs that inculcate an attitude and foster the practice of service to others; [10] motivat[ing] the students to take an active part in the life of the [P]arish; [11] promot[ing] in faculty, students, and parents the concept of the school as a community of faith; [12] provid[ing] opportunities for the practice of this concept; [and 13] cooperat[ing] with the [P]arish council by attending council meetings and by keeping the council informed of school matters.

Id. ¶ 322, at App'x at 133. In fulfilling these duties, the principal is to provide "essential" instruction to new teachers on the "Catholic identity of the school, " id. ¶ 430, at App'x at 154, and ensure that all teachers understand that "[t]he Church puts its trust in them" to provide "faith education" and help students "integrat[e] . . . the Gospel" into daily life, id. ¶ 106, at App'x at 123.

         The Manual further instructs that the principal should implement the "Catholic Values Infusion Program[, ] . . . a very conscious and collaborative way for the principal to fulfill the mission of transmitting Catholic values, culture and traditions to each succeeding generation, to fulfill the essential purpose of a Catholic school and to assist faculties to do the same." Id. ¶ 326, at App'x at 136. Under this program, the principal serves as: (1) a "[s]piritual [l]eader" who "bear[s] the responsibility of integrating Gospel values into the vision, goals, policies and practices, life, and curriculum of the school, " Catholic Education Community: A Values Integration Program ("Values Integration Program") at 12, at Supp. App'x at 56; (2) a "[t]radition [b]earer" who "model[s] the Catholic values [that are] central to the spirit of the Catholic school, " id. at 13, at Supp. App'x at 57; and (3) the "prime communicator of the message" who "promote[s] the values of the Catholic school, " id. at 14, at Supp. App'x at 58.[5]

         Applicants for principal positions must meet several religious qualifications. First, they must be "practicing Catholic[s] in union with Rome, with a commitment to the teachings of the Church and to the development of Christian spirit and a community of faith within a school." Manual ¶ 328, at App'x at 138. Second, applicants should "[c]omplet[e] . . . Levels I and II of the Catechist Certification Program" at least "by the [end] of their fourth year of service." Id., at App'x at 138.[6] Third, they "must demonstrate proficiency" in a number of religious areas: "[e]mbody[ing] Christ-centered principles, " "[e]ncourag[ing] the spiritual growth . . . of each and every student, " "[e]xercis[ing] spiritual leadership to ensure a thriving Catholic school community, " and "promot[ing] Catholic education." Official Job Summary and Qualifications for Archdiocese School Principal ("Job Summary and Qualifications"), at App'x at 243.

         C. Fratello as Principal

         In March 2007, Fratello applied to be the School's principal with a letter drawing attention to her then-job as "a Principal . . . at St. Joseph School" (another school in the Archdiocese) and her "strong Catholic faith." Letter from Fratello to the School (Mar. 23, 2007), at App'x at 191. She provided her references a recommendation form indicating that she was applying for an "important leadership role" within the Archdiocese. Reference Request (July 10, 2006), at App'x at 190.

         In 2007, Fratello was interviewed by the Archdiocese's Principal Search Committee (the "Committee"), Decl. of Cathleen Cassel [7] ("Cassel Decl.") ¶¶ 5-13, at Supp. App'x at 29-31, which

strived to hire Principals with strong Christian values, dedicated [to] providing teachers and students with instruction in religious truth and value, maintaining a set of educational policies [that] are in conformity with the religious beliefs and moral standards of the Archdiocese[, ] and further fostering an educational environment [that] teaches students how to live in accordance with the teachings of Jesus.

Id. ¶ 10, at Supp. App'x at 30.[8]

         Later that year, Fratello was hired and signed a one-year "Contract of Employment for Lay Principals" (the "Lay Contract") with the School, subject to annual renewal. It provided, among other things, that "[t]he principal recognizes the religious nature of the Catholic school[, ] and . . . the [School] retains the right to dismiss [the] principal for immorality, scandal, disregard or disobedience of the [Archdiocese's] polices or rules . . ., or rejection of the official teaching, doctrine or laws of the Roman Catholic Church." Lay Contract ¶ 3(d), at App'x at 85.

         1. Religious Job Functions

         Shortly after becoming principal, Fratello implemented a new prayer system within the School. Every school-day morning, Fratello hosted an eighth-grade student to pray over a loudspeaker system heard in all the classrooms, and at the end of the prayer, she proclaimed, "Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ." Declaration of AnnMarie Weber[9] ("Weber Decl.") ¶ 8, at Supp. App'x at 82. The student then read another prayer and concluded by reciting the "Our Father" prayer (or the "Lord's Prayer"). Id.[10]

         Fratello also communicated religious messages over the School's loudspeaker system during various holiday seasons. On Fridays in October, Fratello celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary by reciting over the loudspeaker the "Our Father" prayer, ten "Hail Mary" prayers, [11] and one "Glory Be" prayer [12] Id. ¶ 11, at Supp. App'x at 83. "[O]n most school days in December during the Advent season/ she "read [over the loudspeaker system] the story of the Jesse Tree'" to "help[] students connect the custom of decorating Christmas trees to the events leading to Jesus' birth, " and to illustrate "the faithfulness of God." Declaration of Sister Lynn Ann Lewis[13] ("Sister Lewis Decl.") ¶ 13, at App'x at 97-98.

         Fratello also played a significant role in planning and executing religious assemblies for students. She supervised and approved the selection of hymns, decorations, and lay persons to recite prayers at annual special Masses held in November and May. And at the end of each school year, she delivered a religious message from the church pulpit to the graduating eighth-grade class and prayed for God's blessing on them.

         In a yearbook message, Fratello congratulated students on their spiritual growth and adherence to Catholic teaching. She also drafted a monthly newsletter that, among other things, invited School families to join her at Mass, expressed her enthusiasm for students' receptiveness to the Catholic faith, and encouraged students' extracurricular spiritual growth. Although she did not herself act as a teacher, she frequently supervised teachers in their instruction of the Catholic faith and directed the content of the religious curriculum, including the selection of all instructional materials and textbooks.

         2. Evaluations

         In Spring 2008, at the end of her first term as principal, Fratello's performance was evaluated by "the Superintendent, the Pastor of the Church and the teachers based on the Principal's ability to perform as (i) a Religious Leader; (ii) an Instructional Leader; (iii) a Communicator; and (iv) [an] Administrator." Declaration of Mary Jane Daley[14] ("Daley Decl.") ¶ 21, at App'x at 106.

         The Pastor's evaluation assessed, among other things, whether Fratello: (1) "foster[ed] a Christian atmosphere which enable[d] staff and students to achieve their potential"; (2) "g[a]ve[] priority to a comprehensive religious education program by [] implementing Archdiocesan guidelines[, ] encouraging communal worship, " and "supporting service-oriented activities"; (3) "ensure[d] that religion classes [were] taught by knowledgeable and committed Catholics"; (4)"encourage[d] teachers to obtain Archdiocesan catechetical certification"; (5)"provide[d] for religious growth among staff members"; (6) "ensure[d] the implementation of the Catholic Values Integration Program in curriculum and all other aspects of school life"; (7) "uph[e]ld[] and strengthen[ed] the [School's] Catholic identity"; (8) "encourage[d] and supported] a strong program of evangelization"; and (9) "provide[d] a variety of opportunities for faculty to meet as a Christian community." Pastor's Evaluation of Principal (the "Pastor Evaluation") at 1-2, at App'x at 198-99. Fratello received high marks in many of these categories. Id.

         Fratello's other evaluators commended her for "renewing the Catholic [i]dentity of St. Anthony's School Office"; "setting a good example as a religion leader"; bringing "a renewed sense of Christian [spirituality"; "creating an atmosphere rich with a sense of Catholic Community"; and "making religious values, attitude and behavior the focus of life at the School." Daley Decl. ¶ 25, at App'x at 107. The School's faculty members gave her high marks as a "Religious Leader." See, e.g., Mary Ann Driscoll's Faculty Evaluation of Principal (the "Driscoll Evaluation") at 1, at App'x at 113; Sister Lynne A. Lewis's Faculty Evaluation of Principal (the "Sister Lewis Evaluation") at 1, at App'x 119; Sister Daniel Catherine Connolly's Faculty Evaluation of Principal (the "Sister Connolly Evaluation") at 1, at App'x 133; Carol McGuirk's Faculty Evaluation of Principal (the "McGuirk Evaluation") at 1, at App'x at 143; Karen Ladolcetta's Faculty Evaluation of Principal ...

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