Burri Law PA v. Skurla, No.21-15271 (9th Cir., June 3, 2022) (J. Berzon)
Plaintiff sued archbishops of the Byzantine Catholic Church and their dioceses in Pittsburgh alleging they had directed defamatory statements about him toward individuals and entities in Arizona and tortiously interfered with his contractual relationship with the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Phoenix. The United States District Court for the District of Arizona dismissed the case for lack of personal jurisdiction. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit vacated the dismissal and remanded the case.
Plaintiff is a Florida law firm that specializes in employee benefit plans within the Catholic Church. The Phoenix Eparchy hired plaintiff to investigate its health care benefits plan. Plaintiff found irregularities in the plan which ultimately resulted in plaintiff bringing an Employee Retirement Income Security Act lawsuit in federal district court in Arizona. Thereafter, defendants repeatedly asked the Phoenix Eparchy to terminate the contract with plaintiff alleging plaintiff was “greedy, incompetent and inexperienced,” was just “trying to make a name for himself” while bringing a lawsuit with “absolutely no merit.”
Calder v. Jones, 465 U.S. 783, 788-89 (1984) “establishes that if a defendant: (1) commits an intentional act, (2) expressly aimed at the forum state, that (3) causes harm the defendant knew was likely to be suffered in the forum state, then the defendant has purposefully directed conduct at the forum state.”
The Ninth Circuit found all three of these elements are met here and that personal jurisdiction thus exists over the Pittsburgh defendants in an Arizona Court.
Defendants also asserted the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. “The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine provides that a civil court may not adjudicate ‘the correctness of an interpretation of canonical text or some decision relating to government of the religious polity.'” This doctrine does not apply. Plaintiff seeks only to obtain relief for harms caused by the defendants “regardless of whether the conduct was ‘consistent with the governing law of the Church.'”