Wednesday, May 16, 2012
In a relatively brief and unanimous opinion in Hamilton v. Southland Christian School, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court's grant of a summary judgment in favor of the school.
"A woman of childbearing age was hired as a teacher at a small Christian school. Then she got pregnant, married, and fired. In that order. Then she filed a lawsuit. She lost on summary judgment. This is her appeal."
The next paragraphs, one would assume, would be devoted to discussing the ministerial exception. And they are. Except the discussion is devoted to the procedural status of the ministerial exception in this litigation. While the school did raise it as an affirmative defense, the district judge rejected it, but granted summary judgment on the ground that the teacher had not established a prima facie case that her pregnancy was the reason the school terminated her. On appeal, the school did not raise the ministerial exception defense as an alternativeground for affirmance; its "brief mentions the ministerial exception only once, and that is when describing the district court’s rulings: 'The Court determined that the ministerial exception did not apply in this case.' ” The school's attorneys did file a notice of Supplemental Authority several months later, citing Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. Equal Emp’t Opportunity Comm’n. But that, the Eleventh Circuit held, was not sufficient.
The court then found there remained material issues of disputed fact as to the reason the teacher was fired. The remand, for proceedings consistent with the opinion, presuambly leaves the "ministerial exception" door open for the district court.
[image: Woodcut from The Scarlet Letter, 1878, via]