I will not describe all the legal maneuvering that led to the latest ruling, but recall that Calvary Episcopal Church filed suit against then bishop Robert Duncan and other diocesan leaders in October 2003 when it was becoming clear that a plan was being devised to remove the Diocese of Pittsburgh from The Episcopal Church. Two years later, all parties agreed to a stipulation that asserted, inter alia, that
Property, whether real or personal (hereinafter “Property”), held or administered by the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America (hereinafter “Diocese”) for the beneficial use of the parishes and institutions of the Diocese, shall continue to be so held or administered by the Diocese regardless of whether some or even a majority of the parishes in the Diocese might decide not to remain in the Episcopal Church of the United States of America. For purposes of this paragraph, Property as to which title is legitimately held in the name of a parish of the Diocese shall not be deemed Property held or administered by the Diocese.After the plan to remove the diocese from The Episcopal Church was implemented, Calvary petitioned the court to enforce the stipulation and return diocesan property to the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. The Court of Common Pleas granted the request.
The Court of Common Pleas held a hearing about whether the stipulation had been violated on May 27, 2009. The arguments made that day are largely the focus of the Commonwealth Court opinion. (You can read my first-person account of that hearing, “My Day in Court,” as well as find my other posts relating to the Calvary litigation in my Web log’s Table of Contents.)
Judge Jubelirer’s opinion begins by reviewing the history of the litigation and noting that the May 27, 2009 hearing addressed “assuming that the Anglican Diocese validly withdrew from TEC USA [emphasis in original], whether the Anglican Diocese could take or retain control of the property referenced in Paragraph One of the Stipulation without violating the Stipulation.” (Presumably, if the withdrawal was not proper—I have argued it was not—diocesan property clearly should remain with the Episcopal Church diocese.) Of course, Judge Joseph James had concluded that the answer to the question at issue on May 27 was no, and he ordered property returned to the Episcopal diocese.
The first question dealt with in today’s opinion is whether Calvary could petition the court for enforcement, rather than having to initiate new litigation. The Anglican diocese argued that a new action was required. This is the most technical issue dealt with by the court and one I will not try to explain fully. Suffice it to say that the Commonwealth Court ruled that the Court of Common Pleas had retained jurisdiction over compliance with the stipulation and could therefore act on a petition from Calvary Church.
The next question was whether “the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America” in the stipulation simply designates a legal entity at the time the stipulation was written or whether “of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America” was an independent descriptor qualifying “the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.” The Anglican diocese argued for the former interpretation, but the court concluded that only the latter interpretation was reasonable. It pointed out that the evidence offered at the hearing supported the view that the latter interpretation was intended. (Calvary’s lawyer, Walter DeForest, had insisted on the insertion of the reference to the diocese being in The Episcopal Church, for example.)
The Anglican diocese claimed that its rights to due process were violated in the May 27 hearing because evidence was introduced as to the legitimacy of the Episcopal diocese. (As an aside, I should mention that the opinion adopts a common-sense convention in referring to dioceses, very helpful in litigation in which parties on both sides at some point insisted on being referred to by the same name. “Diocese” is used to refer to the undivided diocese; after the October 2008 split, the dioceses are referred to as the “Anglican Diocese” and the “Episcopal Diocese.”) Anyway, the appellants argued that the assumption that the withdrawal of the Anglican diocese was proper precluded arguments that the Episcopal diocese was legitimate. The Commonwealth Court found, however, that the assumption did not automatically imply that the Episcopal diocese “could not also validly exist.” In other words, the question of the Episcopal diocese’s legitimacy was independent of the assumption of the hearing and evidence bearing on that question was proper to introduce.
The Anglican appellants also argued that the Court of Common Pleas could not order its Board of Trustees to surrender property, since the Board of Trustees was not a party to the litigation. The court pointed out, however, that the Anglican diocese had argued on behalf of the Board of Trustees without asserting the Board’s independence. It called the appellant argument at this time “disingenuous.”
The Anglican diocese also argued that the Episcopal diocese was not a party to the litigation and, therefore, it could not be ordered to receive the property the Anglican body’s Board of Trustees was required to surrender. Commonwealth Court observed that the appellants cited no authorities to support their argument, and, although the use by both sides of the name “Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh” confused who was representing whom, the Episcopal diocese had been adequately represented in the litigation. That both Calvary Church and The Episcopal Church argued that the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh should receive the property was good enough for the court.
The opinion concludes: “For these reasons, we affirm the order of the trial court.” The opinion is followed by the following order (emphasis in original):
NOW, February 2, 2011, the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County in the above-captioned matter is hereby AFFIRMED.