Law School Case Brief
Smith v. Calvary Christian Church - 462 Mich. 679, 614 N.W.2d 590 (2000)
Under tort law principles, a person who consents to another's conduct cannot bring a tort claim for the harm that follows from that conduct.
Plaintiff began attending Calvary Christian Church, a small, independent church, in August 1985. He formally became a church member in early 1986, whereby, he specifically consented not to cause division with the church, to be faithful to Matthew 18:15-17, and to accept discipline imposed by the church. Shortly after he began to attend the church, plaintiff, believing that the information will be kept confidential, disclosed to the church’s pastor that he had previously frequented prostitutes. During the course of his membership in the church, plaintiff challenged church leaders over religious doctrines; this resulted to his removal from the church’s membership. Plaintiff requested that he be reinstated, but the pastor advised that before plaintiff could be reinstated, he had to confess his sins, including his past indiscretions with prostitutes, to the church board and to plaintiff’s wife. Plaintiff complied and was reinstated. However, plaintiff continued to cause division within the church. Therefore, the church decided to “mark” plaintiff according to Matthew 18:15-17, which involved singling out a person who was involved in sin and causing division within the church, and detailing the person’s sins before the church congregation. The pastor announced to the congregation that plaintiff had formerly visited prostitutes. On the basis of this revelation, plaintiff filed suit, alleging that his disclosure was confidential, and that the pastor repeating it to the congregation violated MCL 600.2156; MSA 27A.2156. He further asserted claims for breach of contract, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and contended that the disclosure was not motivated by religious doctrine, but by the pastor’s personal spite and his intent to humiliate plaintiff. The trial court granted summary disposition for the defendants on all counts. The trial court held that the statute was a rule of evidence and did not create a cause of action for the disclosure of private or privileged communications. It also held that plaintiff could not prove the elements of a breach of contract because there was no agreement that plaintiff's disclosure would be kept confidential. Finally, the trial court held that plaintiff had not adequately pleaded his tort claims, but added that even if he had, whether clergy must keep confidential a personal disclosure was a matter of religious doctrine that a civil court cannot decide. The Court of Appeals affirmed on the statutory and contract claims, but reversed and remanded the tort claims, reasoning that if plaintiff was a member of the church, judicial examination of marking process would have been constitutionally barred; however, if not, defendants would have had no power to discipline plaintiff, and tort claims could have been viable.
Would plaintiff’s tort claims prosper under the circumstances of the case at hand?
The Court ruled, because plaintiff had consented to the church's practices, plaintiff's claims of invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress failed as a matter of tort law. His claim that he revoked consent by terminating membership was belied by his continued involvement with the church. The Court held that because reasonable minds could not have disagreed that plaintiff consented to the church's practices, and manifested his continuing consent by remaining actively engaged with the church, his intentional tort claims against the defendants failed as a matter of tort law.
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