Los Angeles wins summary judgment in Newport Beach property case

Court hands property to Diocese of Los Angeles
St James Newport Beach

The Bishop of Los Angeles had no authority to give the parish of St James in Newport Beach a written waiver exempting the congregation’s property from the reach of the Episcopal Church’s Dennis Canon, an Orange County Superior Court Judge has held.

In a ruling for summary judgment handed down on 1 May 2013 Judge Kim Dunning ordered the parish to hand its multi-million dollar properties over to the Diocese of Los Angeles.

The decision was unexpected, Daniel Lula – an attorney for the parish — told Anglican Ink, as the matter had been set down for trial later this month. In an email to his congregation, the Rev Richard Crocker said: “We have received notice this morning from our attorneys that the court has handed down a significantly negative ruling in our court case. This of course changes the landscape of next week’s trial,” he noted, inviting the parish to a meeting with Mr. Lula “to offer explanation of what we know about the ruling at this point.”

In her decision, Judge Dunning said the Episcopal Church’s rules governing parish property on the diocesan and national level took precedence over civil property and trust laws. She dismissed as non-binding a 1991 letter signed by the then Canon to the Ordinary D. Bruce MacPherson, later to become the Bishop of Western Louisiana, on behalf of Bishop Frederick Borsch that released the diocese’s claim to the property.

“The purpose of the conversations between the Diocese and St. James was for St. James to hold title to its property in its own name free of any trust . . . [as] part of an agreement in order for St. James to secure substantial donations for its building program, “ Bishop MacPherson said in a deposition.

However, this waiver did not amend the parish bylaws and diocesan canons she held. Even if it did, according to the present leadership of the Episcopal Church’s interpretation of the canons “the Bishop of the Diocese did not, and does not, have authority to amend any of these instruments.”

Judge Dunning cited the declaration by the Episcopal Church’s expert witness Robert Bruce Mullin in support of her deference to canon law over the evidence of the deeds and waiver noting the “Mullin declaration concerns ‘religious entity governance and administration,’ and this court is bound by it.”

The court further stated that it believed a parish was a subordinate unit to a diocese and had no existence outside the diocese. While the Episcopal Church could exist without St James, St James could not exist without the Episcopal Church – and as it had no existence independent of the diocese, the loss of its property to the diocese could not harm it.

In 2011 the California Supreme Court rejected an argument of the Episcopal Church that the 1991 letter had been declared invalid by its first review of the case in 2009.  The Court said, “We express no opinion regarding the legal significance, if any, of the 1991 letter. We merely hold that a court must decide the question,” overturning an appellate court ruling that did not allow the parish to put forward a defense.

In 2005 the Orange County Superior Court ruled the Episcopal Church’s allegations were legally defective, but an appellate ruling reversed the trial decision and allowed the complaints to go forward. A second trial court issued a summary judgment in favor of the diocese, but in early 2009, the California Supreme Court sent the case back to the Orange County Superior Court, where St. James answered the complaint, raised affirmative defenses, and began discovery proceedings.

If the parish does not appeal the decision it will have to vacate the property in the near future.

In his invitation to the parish meeting Mr. Crocker said: I ask that all members of St. James come together in unity at this time to hear from our attorney and to pray together. The Lord is not surprised by this decision and He is in our midst. But His strength is particularly manifested when we come together in unity and prayer.”

St James Newport Beach Ruling on Cross-Motions

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