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Curl v. Beltsville Adventist School

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

August 16, 2016

DORIS R.S. CURL, Plaintiff,
v.
BELTSVILLE ADVENTIST SCHOOL, et al, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          GEORGE J. HAZEL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Doris R.S. Curl initiated the present action in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, Maryland, alleging various federal employment discrimination and state law claims against her former employers, the Beltsville Adventist School and the Potomac Conference Corporation of Seventh-day Adventists (collectively, "Defendants'"). ECF No. 2. Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss, or, in the Alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment in state court before removing the action to this Court. ECF Nos. 1 & 6. Defendants' Motion is now pending before this Court, along with Plaintiffs Motion to Remand the action testate court. ECF No. 11. No hearing is necessary to resolve these motions. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md.). Although Plaintiffs Motion to Remand will be denied, the Court grants Defendants' Motion in part, dismissing Plaintiffs claims arising under federal law, and Plaintiffs remaining claims will be remanded to state court pursuant to28U.S.C.§1367.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         The Potomac Conference Corporation of Seventh-day Adventists ("Potomac Conference") is a religious organization that operates Seventh-day Adventist churches and schools in the District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland. ECF No. 2 ¶ 3; ECF No. 6-2 ¶ 2A. One of the schools that the Potomac Conference operates is the Beltsville Adventist School (the "School"), a religious school located in Prince George's County, Maryland that educates students in kindergarten through eighth grade. ECF No. 2 ¶¶ 2-3; ECF No. 6-2 ¶ 2B.

         This action arises out of Plaintiff s termination from her employment as a music teacher at the School, where, before her termination, she had worked full-time for more than twenty five years. ECF No. 2 ¶¶ 1, 7; ECF No. 14-6 ¶ 2. Defendants argue that any claims arising out of their decision to terminate Plaintiff are barred by the so-called ministerial exception granted by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution because Plaintiff is a "minister" as that term has been used under the exception. See generally ECF No. 6-1.

         Plaintiff holds an undergraduate degree in art, with a minor in music, as well as a master's degree in elementary education, which she received from the University of Maryland. ECF No. 14-6 ¶ 5. Although Plaintiffs collegiate education was secular in nature. Plaintiff also holds a secondary school diploma, as well as a nurse's aide certificate, from Brazil Adventist College, and a diploma for teaching music and accordion from the Adventist Music Conservatory. ECF No. 17-1 at 2, 4. Plaintiff indicates that she was not required to have any ministerial training for her position as a music teacher at the School. ECF No. 14-6 ¶ 4.

         In her role as a music teacher at the School, Plaintiff, who is herself a Seventh-day Adventist, id ¶ 7, was responsible for teaching students skills associated with singing, playing instruments, and reading music, as well as teaching the history of music in the United States and abroad, id. ¶ 12. Plaintiff taught students both secular and sacred music, id. ¶ 14. but. according to Wendy Pega, the Principal of the School, Plaintiff has indicated that one of her goals as a teacher was to allow her students to "see Jesus through music, " ECF No. 6-5 ¶ 2E. Every month or two, Plaintiffs students performed at the church that is on site at the School, including both secular and sacred music. ECF No. 14-6 ¶ 15. Each school day began with a prayer service for the faculty members, which various teachers, including Plaintiff, were required to take turns conducting, but Plaintiff never taught religion or bible study classes to the students. Id. ¶¶ 16-17. Students at the School were not required to be Seventh-day Adventists, and Plaintiff estimated that 10 to 20 percent of her students were not. Id. ¶ 3.

         Plaintiff held a "Commissioned Ministry of Teaching License'* which she was awarded after completing at least three years of teaching in the Seventh-day Adventist school system. ECF No. 17-1 ¶ 2G. After six or more years of service, Plaintiff was eligible to receive a "Commissioned Ministry of Teaching Credential, " but she turned it down. Id. In a 2010 performance evaluation of Plaintiff s work, in which she was evaluated for her "spiritual leadership, " Pega indicated that Plaintiff "[a]t all times .. . demonstrates a lifestyle consistent with accepted Seventh-day Adventist church standards"; that she "encourages her students to see their performances as opportunities to share God through music"; and that "[h]er selection of music is done with the hope that the students will grow in their relationship with Christ as they sing the words and take in the message." ECF No. 17-2 at 5.[2]

         The Columbia Union Educational Code (the "Education Code"), which was incorporated by reference into Plaintiffs employment contract, ECF No. 6-2 ¶ 2C; ECF No. 6-4, sets forth guidelines and standards for the establishment and operation of Seventh-day Adventist schools, including employment standards and philosophies for teachers in such schools. See ECF No. 6-3; ECF No. 6-6 at 1. It was created and published by another Seventh-day Adventist Church organization, the Columbia Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. ECF No. 6-2 ¶ 2C. Under the Education Code, the "primary aim of Seventh-day Adventist education is to provide opportunity for students to accept Christ as their Savior, to allow the Holy Spirit to transform their lives, and to fulfill the commission of preaching the gospel to all the world.'" ECF No. 6-3 at 2. The Education Code further provides that "Adventist schools are an integral part of the Church." Id. at 3. Adventist schools are encouraged to "conduct a Week of Spiritual Emphasis/Week of Prayer annually, [p]referablly in the fall and spring" and principals, deans, and teachers are required to provide a "devotional period" for students each school day. Id. at 4. With respect to employment principles, the Education Code "requires that schools employ only those who live in complete harmony with the beliefs and practices of the Church. Therefore, an occupational qualification for any position is that applicants will be baptized Adventists committed to the Church's program of ministry." Id. at 6. Instructional personnel of schools are expected to "[p]ractice enthusiastically and consistently the ideals of the Church"; "[demonstrate a high sense of loyalty to Adventist educational philosophy"; and "[l]ook upon Christian educational service as a holy vocation." Id. at 8. Moreover, School personnel such as Plaintiff wepe required to "maintain membership in their constituent or academy churches and participate in church activities, programs, and finances, including the practice of tithing through the local employing organization." Id. at 7. Notably, a portion of Plaintiff s salary was paid by tithe funds, [3] ECF No. 6-2 ¶ 2F, though Plaintiff was unaware of that fact during her employment at the School, ECF No. 14-6 ¶ 18.

         On February 6, 2013, while working at the School, Plaintiff fell and sustained a serious physical and neurological injury, which limited the operation of Plaintiff s brain, neurological system, and musculoskeletal system. ECF No. 2 ¶ 8; ECF No. 6-2 ¶ 2H. The injury made it difficult for Plaintiff to see, concentrate, and think, as well as care for herself or perform manual tasks. ECF No. 2 ¶ 8. Plaintiff filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits in March 2013. Id. ¶ 9; ECF No. 6-7. Plaintiffs injury caused her to be absent from work for significant periods of time, but Plaintiff received notes from her treating physicians explaining the need for her absences. ECF No. 2 ¶ 10.

         In March or April 2013, while Plaintiff was still out on leave pursuant to her doctors' orders, id. ¶ 11. Keith L. Hallam, the Vice President for Education of the Potomac Conference, sent a letter to Plaintiff "invit[ing] [her] to share [her] ministry" with School students for the 2013-2014 school year, ECF No. 6-6 at 1. That letter indicated that Plaintiff s appointment to continue at the School for that year required that she meet certain conditions, including active membership in a Potomac Conference constituent Seventh-day Adventist Church "with evidence of loyalty to denominational standards and teachings, " as well as "fulfillment of the qualifications and responsibilities required of instructional personnel as outlined in the . .. Educational Code." Id. Plaintiff signed the annual contract, incorporating the Education Code, to continue her employment at the School for the 2013-2014 school year on April 22, 2013, and it was signed by Hallam on May 13, 2013. ECF No. 6-4.

         On June 28, 2013, a Potomac Conference human resources representative, Johana Prestol-Dominguez, sent a letter to Plaintiff explaining that Plaintiffs "report to work date" would be August 12, 2013. ECF No. 14-2 at 1. The letter further stated:

We hope that your physician will clear you for return to work and [we] know that is your wish as well. However, if you are unable to return to work on that date we have chosen to provide you with a full month's wages through August 30. 2013 above and beyond policy. At that time it will not be possible for us to hold your position open for you any longer and other staffing arrangements will need to be made.

Id. Having not received any clearance for Plaintiff to return to work one month later, in a letter dated July 30, 2013, Hallam explained that it was "with sadness that [the School] [would] be withdrawing [Plaintiffs] contract [for the 2013-2014 school year] due to [her] inability to meet its requirements." ECF No, 6-8 at 1. Although the letter was sent by certified mail, Plaintiff did not receive it. See Id. at 2; ECF No. 2 ¶ 15; ECF No. 14-4 at 1.

         On August 8, 2013, Plaintiffs neurologist wrote a letter indicating that he was "reluctantly allowing her to attempt to return to work" but that Plaintiff would require certain accommodations, namely, that after two or three hours of work. Plaintiff would need to be allowed to take a fifteen or twenty minute rest break "in an environment that is quiet and not brightly lit and that allows her to recline." ECF No. 6-9 at 1. The letter further indicated that "[i]f symptoms . . . become exacerbated ... and do not subside with rest, " then Plaintiff would need to "be allowed to be relieved of her duties for that day." Id. Plaintiff then sent an email to Pega and Hallam the following day explaining that her doctor was allowing her to return to work "with minor accommodations which [would] not affect [her] performance as a teacher, " and indicated that she would report to the School on August 12, 2013. ECF No. 14-3.

         On August 11, 2013, Prestol-Dominguez responded to Plaintiffs email, indicating that it had been forward to her by Pega, and stated that Plaintiff was "informed via registered letter last week that the Potomac Conference had decided to rescind [her] 2013-2014 contract." ECF No. 14-4 at 1. That email also indicated that the School had not yet received the release from Plaintiffs doctor and that a copy would need to be sent for the Potomac Conference to make a decision regarding Plaintiffs return to work and the requested accommodations. Id. Prestol- Dominguez then instructed Plaintiff not to report to work until she was authorized to do so. Id.

         Plaintiff nevertheless reported to work on August 12, and, after she was given a copy of the letter which rescinded her contract, she was promptly sent home. ECF No. 2 ¶ 15 n.4; ECF No. 15-5 at No further discussion between Plaintiff and Defendants took place until, on August 14, 2013, Prestol-Dominguez emailed Plaintiff indicating that they had ...


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