Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Appellate Court Affirms Pittsburgh Trial Court

A copy of the decision by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in the Pittsburgh litigation has just reached me. For the time being, you may read it here, or here. I have only glanced through it enough to see that it rejects all of the appellants' points on appeal, one by one:

1. It holds that although it was not standard practice for them to do so, Calvary Church was not violating Pennsylvania procedure by seeking enforcement of its 2005 stipulation and order settling the case by a supplemental petition, rather than by bringing a separate action. (When an appellate court overlooks a procedural violation to reach the merits of a case, you know -- if you were the one raising the point of procedure -- that you are in trouble.)

2. It agrees with Judge James's reading of the language of the stipulation as being "unambiguous" -- but shows by its defense of that point the precise ambiguity of which the appellants complained. (It is elementary contract law that the formation of a binding contract requires a "meeting of the minds." Although the court asserts that there is "extrinsic evidence" to support the trial court's finding that both parties agreed on what the stipulation meant, it cites only evidence and testimony from Calvary's counsel as to what he meant by inserting the language in question.)

3. It holds that Judge James did not err in receiving evidence to show that the faux diocese of Pittsburgh was "recognized" by ECUSA, even though the parties had agreed not to question or argue over the validity of the Diocese of Pittsburgh's withdrawal.

4. Finally, it rejects the appellants' argument that Judge James's order was defective for ordering people who were not parties to the action (e.g., the diocesan corporation, which actually holds the titles) to hand over property. It holds that since Bishop Duncan's diocese is a party, it can see that the order is obeyed.

The opinion specifies that it is to remain an unpublished one, so it will not set any precedent for other cases in Pennsylvania (or elsewhere). That is why it does not devote all that much discussion to the issues, important as they are for those involved. And the result once again bears out the haphazard nature of litigation -- you can devote hundreds and hundreds of hours, and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars, to it, but it all comes down in the end to what, in this case, three justices (who might spend at most four or five hours on the case) think.

From this point, the only alternative open to Bishop Duncan and his Diocese is an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which does not have to hear the case if it so chooses. The Diocese has not indicated if it will do so; the points that could be urged will have to be carefully evaluated first.


  1. Statement from Archbishop Robert Duncan:
    “The decision of the Appellate Court is deeply disappointing . We were given a good hearing before the Appellate Court. In the next hours and days, the Bishop and Standing Committee will pray and take counsel about our corporate path forward, both as congregations and as a diocese. We ask for the prayers of all people of good faith.”

  2. "When you come to the edge of the light as you know it and step out into the darkness, Faith is knowing one of two things will happen - there will be something to stand on or you will be taught how to fly."

    Most sincere and fervent prayers.

  3. The Bishop and Standing Committee of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh have decided to petition the Commonwealth Court for a rehearing of the ongoing litigation with the local Episcopal Church diocese. They also reaffirmed their commitment to work tirelessly to arrive at a reasonable negotiated settlement with the Episcopal Church diocese.

  4. Thank you for that news, David Trautman. It is always good legal practice to present your arguments about what is wrong first to the court that made the decision. After giving them a chance to agree with you (and modify their opinion), then your appeal to a higher court can honestly say that you gave them a chance to fix what was wrong.

    Most judges, however, become too invested in their opinions to admit that they might have overlooked something, and made a mistake. The all-too-human tendency is to say, "Yes, I already took that into account, so it doesn't make any difference."

  5. I admit that I haven't followed this as closely as you have, but from what I read, it appears that Bishop Duncan agreed to negotiating for the property in Pittsburgh back in 2005 if he broke away and then tried to claim otherwise?
    From what I've read here the judge and appellate court made the right decision. Do you have any other documents that I can read to see otherwise? I am following the court process in Ft. Worth closely. I read most legal briefings. Thanks.

  6. No, Mark -- it's by no means that simple. The parties entered into a stipulation in October 2005 to settle the outstanding litigation, which was filed in an attempt to stop the Diocese of Pittsburgh from allowing parishes to leave the Diocese and ECUSA. The present dispute is all about interpreting the language of the first paragraph of the stipulation, which required the Diocese to keep holding the diocesan assets as it theretofore had done, for the benefit of all the parishes of the diocese, regardless of how many decided to leave. The trial court and now the appellate court interpreted language identifying the Diocese in that first paragraph as language meaning that the Diocese would turn over all its property if it ever left ECUSA.

    For the full details, with links to all of the operative pleadings, use this index page to work your way through the posts describing the litigation, which begin with the one called "The Pirates of Pittsburgh", and work your way forward from there.

  7. This is actually another scary ruling, Mr. Haley, in the ongoing saga of Pennsylvania Hierarchical Polity Run Wild.

    I recently moved to Lancaster County (Amish country) from Japan. The Amish have elected elders who they call "Bishops". But they are simply elders of the group, not like Roman Catholic bishops. (There is no pope in Amish practice.)

    How far is the day when one of these Amish bishops makes a decision that is unfavorable to the following, and the matter ends up in Pennsylvania court. (The Amish studious avoid the civil courts and as I get older, I see even more clearly why.)

    The Pennsylvania judges would grant full authority to the "bishop", I gather, even though its an elected role that the community can pull back as easily as it was given.

    Try to convince a Pennsylvania judge of that, though . . .