Ministerial Exception Application When Plaintiff Position Does Not Include Religious Instruction or Activities

Triable Issues As To Whether Ministerial Exception Applied To Plaintiff’s Position Because She Did Not Teach Religion To The Students Nor Did She Lead The Students In Any Religious Activities Or Services

Atkins v. St. Cecilia Catholic Sch., 90 Cal.App.5th 1328 (2023)

Francis Atkins, a former employee of St. Cecilia Catholic School, a religious elementary school, sued for age discrimination in violation of FEHA. The Superior Court granted St. Cecilia’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that Atkins’ suit was barred by the ministerial exception. Atkins appealed.

Initially, Atkins argued that St. Cecilia waived the ministerial exception as an affirmative defense by failing to assert it in its answer. The Court of Appeal rejected that argument:


The Supreme Court has determined that the ministerial exception operates as an affirmative defense to an otherwise cognizable claim. Ordinarily, an affirmative defense must be alleged in the answer, or it is waived. This does not mean, however, that the failure to plead an affirmative defense in the answer necessarily precludes the defendant from raising it in a motion for summary judgment. Instead, courts generally have allowed an affirmative defense to be asserted for the first time in a motion for summary judgment absent a showing of prejudice. As explained by one appellate court: Given the long-standing California court policy of exercising liberality in permitting amendments to pleadings at any stage of the proceedings, we believe that a party should be permitted to introduce a defense in a summary judgment procedure so long as the opposing party has adequate notice and opportunity to respond.
In this case, Atkins has not shown prejudice from St. Cecilia’s failure to allege the ministerial exception as an affirmative defense in its answer. As St. Cecilia explained in its motion to set aside the scheduling order, at the time the parties stipulated to continue the trial date (but not the deadline for filing a motion for summary judgment), the Supreme Court had not yet issued its decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe. Accordingly, at that time, St. Cecilia did not believe it had grounds to seek summary judgment based on the ministerial exception. Once the Supreme Court issued the decision in that case, St. Cecilia gave Atkins notice of its intent to assert the defense when it filed the motion to set aside, seeking permission to move for summary judgment based on the exception. Atkins had an opportunity to oppose St. Cecilia’s request on both substantive and procedural grounds. After the trial court granted St. Cecilia permission to raise the ministerial exception in a summary judgment motion, Atkins had a full opportunity to oppose that motion on the merits.
Atkins asserts that she suffered prejudice because discovery had closed by the time St. Cecilia filed its summary judgment motion, and thus, she did not have an opportunity to conduct discovery that was tailored to address the ministerial exception. As St. Cecilia points out, however, Atkins could have asked the trial court to continue the summary judgment hearing to allow her to conduct additional discovery pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 437c, subdivision (h). While Atkins argued in her opposition that she was prejudiced by St. Cecilia’s failure to raise the ministerial exception in its answer, she never requested a continuance so that she could seek any necessary discovery. On this record, St. Cecilia did not waive the ministerial exception as an affirmative defense.


Atkins v. St. Cecilia Catholic School, 90 Cal.App.5th 1328 (2023)(cleaned up).

Next, Atkins argued that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to St. Cecilia because her former job position with the school does not fall within the scope of the ministerial exception. Atkins specifically asserts that her job duties as both an office administrator and an art teacher were secular in nature and did not involve the teaching of religion to the students. St. Cecilia contended that Atkins is subject to the exception because the school entrusted her with educating and forming students in the Catholic faith, and Atkins fully embraced that role in her teaching position. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Atkins, the Court of Appeal concluded the trial court erred in granting the summary judgment motion because there were triable issues of material fact as to whether the ministerial exception applies to Atkins’s former job position as an art teacher and an office administrator.

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