Pittsburgh Church Property Ruling Unlikely to Have a Significant Effect

A Pennsylvania appellate court yesterday handed a victory to Pittsburgh Episcopalians in their long-running dispute with their former diocesan leadership (read the full opinion here). Observers of the Anglican scene will recall that the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, as well as a majority of its member parishes, several years ago effected changes to its constitution and canons that effectively withdrew the diocese from the Episcopal Church. The “breakaway” Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh subsequently became a member of the Anglican Church in North America. The disaffiliation move resulted in litgation between the Diocese and certain Episcopalians loyal to the national Episcopal Church who stayed behind and were in turn recognized by the Episcopal Church as the Diocese of Pittsburgh in the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (confused yet?) over which of the two sides were the rightful owners of property held by the diocese before the disaffiliation.
The litigation, which was initially filed before the disaffiliation had become effective, was settled, the terms of which settlement are memorialized in a stipulation in which the diocese appears to have pledged that it would administer those assets at issue (which evidently are valued at something around $20 million) solely for the benefit of the mission of the Diocese of Pittsburgh in the Episcopal Church in the United States of America and its member parishes. Once the Diocese’s disaffiliation became effective, the so-called loyalists filed a petition seeking to enforce the stipulation, claiming that the now disaffiliated diocese was seeking to remove assets from the Episcopal Church in contravention of the stipulation. The trial court agreed with the loyalists, and found that the rump Episcopal diocese was the rightful owner of the diocesan assets. Yesterday, the Commonwealth Court, an intermediate appellate court, affirmed the trial court’s ruling. While this decision is, no doubt, disappointing to the disaffiliated diocese and its members, I would caution the national Episcopal Church and its allies against reading too much into the decision.

Sometimes appellate courts consider issues of far reaching importance and issue decisions that set forth general principles of broad, universal application. Sometimes, they consider cases that so turn on their particular facts that the resulting decisions are of little or no importance to other litigants, even those who might appear to be similarly situated. The Pittsburgh case is most certainly of the latter variety. To see this we need only look at what was NOT at issue in this case. The court did not consider, whether the Diocese’s disaffiliation from the Episcopal Church was valid, or whether a diocese of the Episcopal Church can or cannot withdraw from the denominational body. It did not consider whether any of the parishes that left with the diocese could lawfully do so, nor did it resolve questions surrounding the ownership of those parishes assets. The Commonwealth Court, rather, in a display of “small ball” restraint, confined its analysis to what is the proper interpretation of the stipulation that initially ended the litigation. This is a question so particular to this case that it is simply not possible to find any greater lessons to take from the opinion. None of the other issues that the court addressed in the course of its opinion are likely to be of any particular interest to future litigants or of much applicability to any future case.

So while there is, for sure, grounds for disappointment with the outcome of the litigation – disappointment that I share –  the greater legal issues raised by the crack up of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion remain to be resolved another day, by other courts.

One other small note bears mentioning. The Diocese argued on appeal that the trial court erred by not dismissing the petition to enforce the stipulation because, the Diocese asserted, the loyalists ought to have sought enforcement by filing a complaint and initiating a new lawsuit, not by filing a petition for enforcement of the stipulation. The Commonwealth Court rejected this argument because, it said, the trial court had adopted the stipulation as its order, thereby retaining jurisdiction. Under such circumstances, a petition to enforce would be appropriate. At least one commentator has suggested that the court in effect “ignored” a “violation” of procedural rules. This characterization is, however, unfair to the Commonwealth Court. The court, in fact, found that a procedural violation HAD NOT occurred since, it concluded, the trial court had retained jurisdiction over the matter. While the commentator in question is right that, generally it is not a good sign when a court overlooks your adversary’s procedural miscues, that is not really a fair desrciption of what happened here. It may well be that the Commonwealth Court stretched the facts a bit so as to reach the conclusion that the petition was not procedurally invalid. Pennsylvania courts, however, have a tradition of interpreting non-jurisdictional procedural requirements (e.g., statutes of limitations, appeal deadlines and other such matters that touch on the courts’ jurisdiction) liberally in accordance with a general policy preference that favors the resolution of disputes on their merits. That may well be what happened here, and it doesn’t appear to me to represent a reversible error in this case.

In a separate post, I will discuss why I think it is unlikely that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will agree to hear this case should the Diocese ask that it do so.

2 Responses to Pittsburgh Church Property Ruling Unlikely to Have a Significant Effect
  1. A. S. Haley
    February 3, 2011 | 7:20 pm

    Mark, I was pointing out that the Commonwealth Court concluded that the Court of Common Pleas had “retained jurisdiction” merely by the fact of entering an order approving the stipulation by which the parties settled the case, which was then dismissed. If every entry of an order, without an express reservation of jurisdiction, constitutes such a reservation by the court anyway (sub silentio), then the exception swallows the rule, and no one would ever need to bring a subsequent complaint for what they claimed was a later breach of the terms of the settlement — they would always proceed by petition.

    I agree with you, however, that it’s not reversible error. It just shows how the court was determined to reach the merits, rather than send the case back on a technicality — and still create a procedural exception which cannot be cited as precedent.

    • Mark
      February 4, 2011 | 8:44 am

      @A.S. Haley, The more I’ve thought about this the more conviced I am that the Commonwealth Court actually got it right. Your argument would be more compelling, I think, had the trial court in the initial proceedings not adopted the parties’ stipulation as its order. The court can exercise its inherent jurisdiction to enforce its own orders if the circumstances are sufficient to permit the inference that it intended to retain such jurisdiction. There are several cases at both the state level in PA, and from the federal district courts in PA, to the effect that one of the indicia of such an intent can be the incorporation of a settlement agreement, or its terms, into the order of dismissl. Seems to me that the Commonwealth Court was absolutely correct on this one as a matter of law. If your point is that permitting courts to generally retain jurisdiction absent proper evidence of the intent to do so will lead to the exception swallowing the rule, I would agree. But doesn’t appear to be what happened here.