U.S. Supreme Court denies stay in defamation case

Ruling permits case to move forward in Jefferson Circuit Court

by Kathy Francis | Presbyterian News Service

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court denied an application for a stay of proceedings in a defamation case filed by a former PC(USA) A Corporation employee. (Photo by Jessica Palatucci)

LOUISVILLE — The U.S. Supreme Court has denied an application for a stay of proceedings in a defamation case filed by a former Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) A Corporation employee. The May 30 ruling allows the case to proceed in Jefferson Circuit Court in Louisville.

Two weeks ago, Louisville attorney John O. Sheller, the PC(USA) A Corporation’s outside counsel, asked the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay of proceedings in the trial court in Louisville. The PC(USA) A Corporation was appealing a Kentucky Supreme Court ruling in the defamation case brought by the Rev. Eric Hoey, a former Presbyterian Mission Agency employee. In September, Kentucky’s highest court ordered the case returned to Jefferson Circuit Court.

Sheller also filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s a request for a judicial review of the case by the nation’s highest court. Granting a writ of certiorari by the U.S. Supreme Court requires approval by four of the nine justices for the case to be heard. The court denies the vast majority of petitions, leaving the decision of the lower court to stand without review. A decision on the writ of certiorari request is expected in fall 2019.

At issue is whether a civil court should preside over a defamation case in which the court will be asked to review and interpret internal church doctrine. Sheller based the argument for a stay on the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. Under that doctrine, courts abstain from hearing claims in which they are required to adjudicate controversies over religious doctrine.

Hoey alleges that the Church defamed him by publishing that he had engaged in “unethical” conduct as a minister. Hoey is one of four employees placed on paid administrative leave in 2014 during an independent investigation into the establishment of an unauthorized nonprofit corporation, the Presbyterian Centers for New Church Innovation Inc. As of June 1, 2015, the four were no longer employed by the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

In a similar defamation case brought by Hoey’s colleague, the Rev. Roger Dermody, the Kentucky Court of Appeals last year unanimously affirmed a Jefferson Circuit Court ruling that said that Dermody’s dismissal was a matter of “internal doctrinal affairs” and not subject to state interference.

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