Judicial Council

Decision Number 1419


November 01, 2021


IN RE: A Review of An Administrative Appeal from a Clergy Member of the New England Annual Conference

Digest


The decision of the Northeast Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals is affirmed.

Statement of Facts


As noted and set forth by the Northeast Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals, this appeal arises most directly from the June 11, 2020, vote of the New England Annual Conference's clergy session to place the Appellant, an elder formerly in full connection, on administrative location. The administrative proceedings that culminated in that vote, however, had their genesis four years earlier, on June 9, 2016, when Appellant's then District Superintendent presented the resident Bishop of the New England Annual Conference, with a written complaint. On June 28, 2016, after it became apparent that a just resolutions would not be achieved within 90 days the Bishop requested that Appellant be placed on involuntary leave of absence, invoking ¶ 355.2a of the 2012 Book of Discipline [2016 Discipline ¶ 354.2a], which then (as now) provided that an involuntary leave of absence may be requested when "[a] written and signed complaint is not resolved through the supervisory (¶ 362.1b, c), complaint (¶ 362.1e), or trial process within 90 days, or clearly cannot be resolved within 90 days." 2012 Discipline ¶ 355.2a. [NEJ Appendix pp 1-6]

By letter dated July 25, 2016. the co-chairs of the Conference Relations Committee advised Appellant that, pursuant to the Bishop's request, Conference Relations would conduct an Administrative Fair Process Hearing on August 23, 2016 (29 days from the date of the letter), pursuant to ¶ 361.2 of the 2012 Discipline. [NEJ Appendix p 7]. Following the fair process hearing on August 23, 2016, as noted by the Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals, the Conference Relations Committee recommended that the Executive Committee of the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry [BOOM] approve placing Appellant on involuntary leave of absence. The Conference Relations Committee's recommendation was accepted and, on September 1, 2016, Appellant was notified that his involuntary leave of absence would go into effect on September 8, 2016. Meanwhile, on September 6, 2016, the Bishop wrote to Appellant, confirming that he was dismissing the previously filed complaint, "due to the fact that you have been placed on involuntary leave of absence ... with certain conditions and requirements imposed by the Board of Ordained Ministry, and I believe this appropriately addresses the issues concerning your ministry that are raised by the complaint." [NEJ Appendix pp 8-10]

The Appellant raised objections to the 2016 leave of absence proceedings in letters he sent on September 20, 2016—one letter addressed to the Co-Chairs of the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry and the other to the Conference Administrative Review Committee [ARC]. The record indicates that on December 10, 2016, the Administrative Review Committee notified the Appellant that it had reviewed the relevant documents and determined that all necessary procedures had been followed in connection with his being placed on involuntary leave of absence. [NEJ Appendix pp 11-14]

The Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals further set forth that on January 30, 2017, Appellant wrote to the Board of Ordained Ministry, "request[ing] reinstatement to active appointment on July 1, 2017." In a letter dated February 14, 2017, the Board of Ordained Ministry replied that Appellant had not yet completed all the requirements imposed in connection with his leave of absence. The record presented to the Northeast Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals indicates that Appellant's request to return to active status as of July 1, 2017, was denied and, further, that he was continued on involuntary leave of absence for the appointment years commencing July 2018 and July 2019. Nothing in the record presented to the Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals indicates that the Appellant ever formally challenged any decisions made in 2017, 2018, or 2019, that his involuntary leave of absence would continue during those appointment years. [NEJ Appendix pp 15-27]

In a letter dated February 12, 2019, after reporting the Conference Relations Committee's conclusion that Appellant was "not yet ready to return to ministry," the Conference Relations Committee's Co-Chairs wrote that the Conference Relations Committee would welcome meeting with Appellant again at their fall meeting in October 2019. Such a meeting appears to have been held on October 22, 2019, and on October 25, 2019, the Board of Ordained Ministry met and made two decisions: (1) to deny Appellant's request to end his involuntary leave of absence; and (2) to recommend that Appellant be placed on administrative location. The Bishop was informed of those decisions in a memorandum dated October 26, 2019, and on October 30, 2019, the Bishop notified Appellant and the Conference Relations Committee that the Cabinet had accepted the Board of Ordained Ministry's recommendation and would be pursuing administrative location pursuant to ¶¶ 354 and 359. [NEJ Appendix pp 28-36]

On December 2, 2019, in response to a letter from Appellant's advocate, the Conference Relations Committee notified Appellant that the Conference Relations Committee would conduct a fair process hearing regarding the Cabinet's request to place Appellant on administrative location, and that "details regarding the hearing" would be provided in a subsequent communication. Thereafter, nothing appears to have happened until May 14, 2020, when the Conference Relations Committee sent a letter to Appellant containing notice that a fair process hearing would be held on June 4, 2020, along with the information needed to participate via Zoom.  [NEJ Appendix pp 37-41]

On May 19, 2020, Appellant requested clarification from the Conference Relations Committee about the reasons for the hearing. The Conference Relations Committee responded to this request on May 23, 2020, and on June 2, 2020, Appellant submitted two motions to dismiss and six written objections for ruling by the Conference Relations Committee. On June 3, 2020, the Conference Relations Committee denied all motions and objections of Appellant. The parties seem to agree that a fair process hearing was held on June 4, 2020, but the Northeast Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals specifically emphasized that it [NEJCOA] had not been provided with any transcript, recording or minutes of the hearing. [NEJ Appendix pp 42-56]

Four days later, on June 8, 2020, the Conference Relations Committee Co‑Chair prepared a letter for Appellant documenting that the Conference Relations Committee had met following the hearing on June 4 and voted to accept the Cabinet's recommendation to place Appellant on [administrative location], and further shared that the Board of Ordained Ministry itself had met and reached the same conclusion on June 8. Regarding the Board of Ordained Ministry's decision, the letter stated: "For the integrity of the church and in order to do no harm, the Board of Ordained Ministry, upon recommendation of both the Conference Relations Committee and the Cabinet, is recommending to the clergy session (scheduled to meet on June 11, 2020) that you be placed on administrative location in accordance with ¶ 354 and ¶ 359 of the 2016 Book of Discipline." [NEJ Appendix pp 57-58]

The Northeast Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals further set forth that:

On the same day (June 8, 2020), Appellant's advocate sent a letter to the Chair of the Administrative Review Committee, announcing "the intention of [the Appellant] to make an appeal of the findings of the Conference Relations Committee's recommendation of Administrative Location from their meeting on June 4, 2020, under the provisions of ¶ 2718.3 and ¶ 2718.4 of the Book of Discipline, 2016." The letter added that the Appellant "intend[ed] to give official notice of the appeal with a written statement of the grounds for the appeal by the disciplinary deadline of July 4, 2020 (30 days)." Finally, the advocate's letter included this statement relevant to the scheduled meeting of the clergy session on June 11: "Further, we understand that Judicial Council Decision 1361 states, 'The clergy session is barred from voting on a recommendation for involuntary change of status when the appellate process has not yet been completed.'" [Notification of intention to Appeal, NEJ Appendix p 59]

The Administrative Review Committee also met on June 8, 2020, indicating later that it did so in order to conduct the "automatic review of the administrative record pursuant to [Discipline ¶] 636." The findings the Administrative Review Committee made on June 8, however, did not address either the challenges Appellant later advanced on this appeal, or the similar objections he had presented to the Conference Relations Committee on June 2. On the contrary, as the Administrative Review Committee later acknowledged, in a letter dated July 7, 2020, the only function the Administrative Review Committee performed in this case was to conduct the automatic review required by ¶ 636, which was confined to verifying that the administrative process leading up to the clergy session's vote included the following components, thereby satisfying the Administrative Review Committee that the Conference Relations Committee and the Board of Ordained Ministry had "followed the process as it is laid out in the Discipline":

  1. On October 26, 2019, the Board of Ordained Ministry voted to request Administrative Location for the Appellant based on 354.9. This was then approved by the Bishop and the Cabinet.
  2. From there the Board of Ordained Ministry referred the request to the Conference Relations Committee (¶¶ 361.1 and 363). The procedures for a Fair Process Hearing were followed. (¶ 361.2)
  3. The Appellant was notified on May 14, 2020 of the Fair Process Hearing with sufficient detail to allow the respondent to prepare a response. This notice was given within 21 days of the hearing according to ¶ 361.2b.
  4. The Appellant selected an elder in full connection to accompany him to the hearing who did have voice at the hearing according to ¶¶ 361.2c and 363.1.
  5. The Appellant had access at least seven days prior to the hearing to all records relied upon in the determination of the outcome of the process. The co‑chairperson of the Conference Relations Committee sent them to Appellant and Appellant's advocate on, or a few days after, May 23,2020.
  6. The Agenda of the Hearing was followed pursuant to ¶ 363.1.
  7. The Conference Relations Committee made their recommendation to the Board of Ordained Ministry, which affirmed the recommendation pursuant to ¶ 363.

The Administrative Review Committee reported its finding to the clergy session on June 11, following which the clergy session voted to approve the Board of Ordained Ministry's recommendation to place Appellant on administrative location. On June 21, 2020, Appellant served his formal notice of appeal with the Administrative Review Committee, along with a brief that constituted his written statement of the grounds for his appeal. The Administrative Review Committee did not act on the June 21, 2020, appeal, however, but forwarded it to the Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals on July 1, 2020. In turn, on July 6, 2020, the Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals' President sent the matter back to the Administrative Review Committee, explaining that the General Conference had designated the Administrative Review Committee, not the Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals, as the first level of appellate review in any appeal filed pursuant to ¶¶ 2718.3 and 2718.4 of the 2016 Discipline.

Following receipt of the Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals' July 6, 2020, correspondence, the Administrative Review Committee's Chair wrote to Appellant's advocate again on July 10, announcing that she was returning Appellant's "Notice of Appeals and all of its enclosures," and reasserting the position that the Administrative Review Committee had no jurisdiction and that the appeal "should be re-addressed to the proper appellate body in compliance with the 2016 Book of Discipline and the decisions of the Judicial Council." On this occasion, however, the Administrative Review Committee attached "a written statement of the grounds for the Administrative Review Committee's report to Clergy Session," dated July 7, 2020, which the Administrative Review Committee represents as the byproduct of the "automatic review of the administrative record" that it had conducted on June 8, 2020 "pursuant to [Discipline ¶] 636."

On July 28, 2020, the Appellant sent written notice of his appeal directly to the Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals along with his brief which set forth the grounds of the appeal. The Northeast Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals held a video‑conferenced oral hearing, on November 14, 2020, during which the following questions were presented:

Were there any errors of Church law sufficient to vitiate the clergy session's vote of June 11, 2020, to place the Appellant on administrative location? In particular:

  • Does the holding in JCD 1383 nullify the administrative process used in this case?
  • Were those administrative proceedings improperly used to prosecute charges that were required to be pursued through a judicial complaint?
  • Was the clergy session barred from moving forward on June 11, 2020, with a vote on whether to place the Appellant on administrative location, notwithstanding that Appellant had previously announced his intention to file an interlocutory appeal pursuant ¶¶ 2817.3 and 2817.4, and that the time for filing that appeal had not yet expired?
  • Did the Administrative Review Committee err in declining to render a decision on the merits of the questions presented in the appeal the Appellant filed on June 21, 2020?

Jurisdiction


The Judicial Council has jurisdiction pursuant to ¶¶ 2718 3 and 2718.4.

Analysis and Rationale


The Judicial Council affirms the ruling of the Northeast Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals in this matter (dated January 15, 2021) which was predicated, in pertinent part, upon the following analysis:

The administrative process leading to this appeal is not barred by Judicial Council Decision ("JCD") 1383. By its own terms, JCD 1383 applies prospectively only and has no impact on administrative cases, including this one, that were commenced before November 1, 2019, the date JCD 1383 was decided. Nor did the administrative process leading to this appeal improperly "prosecute" a chargeable offense that should have been prosecuted as a judicial complaint.

That said, the Judicial Council's holding and rationale in JCD 1361 compel the [NEJ Committee on Appeals] to conclude that it was error for the Clergy Session of the New England Annual Conference to move forward on June 11, 2020, with voting on whether to place the Appellant on administrative location, after having received from Appellant written notice that he intended to exercise his right to pursue an interlocutory appeal of the June 4, 2020, decision of the Conference Relations Committee within the 30-day window allowed by ¶ 2718.4(a) of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church ....

Thereafter, the Conference's Administrative Review Committee erred by failing to [hold an administrative review hearing]. Concluding that it lacked jurisdiction over the appeal, the Administrative Review Committee returned the Appellant's submissions to his advocate with instructions that they "be re-addressed to the proper appellate body in compliance with the [Discipline] and the decisions of the Judicial Council." That was error. Although the [NEJ Committee on Appeals] may properly resolve certain threshold legal issues addressed in this opinion, the Appellant's appeal presents several distinctly "procedural questions" that properly fall within the first-level appellate jurisdiction the General Conference has conferred on the Administrative Review Committee in Discipline ¶ 2718.3. This includes questions that cannot be adequately answered without having a clear understanding (which the Committee on Appeals lacks) of the scope of the record developed during the fair process hearing held on June 2, 2020, or that was otherwise considered by the Conference Relations Committee or the Board of Ordained Ministry in deciding to recommend that the Appellant be placed on leave of absence.

In response to a petition from the Council of Bishops requesting an interpretation of the newly enacted ¶¶ 2718.3 and 2718.4, we held in JCD 1361 that "[t]he specific language used [by the General Conference] and the absence of [any mention of] the clergy session in ¶¶ 2718.3 and 2718.4 are evidence that the General Conference's intent [was] to bestow a right to [an] interlocutory administrative appeal prior to and without the requirement of final action of the clergy session." It, therefore, followed that "an administrative appeal … has the effect of staying a recommendation related to any type of involuntary change of status, except for a discontinuance from provisional membership."

The Appellant's advocate made a timely notification of the Appellant's intention to file an administrative appeal under ¶¶ 2718.3 and 2718.4 from the decision of the Conference Relations Committee on June 8, 2020, recommending administrative location, and such appeal was subsequently filed on June 21, 2020, which was well within the 30-day window allowed for administrative appeals. The clergy session, the Board of Ordained Ministry, the Conference Relations Committee, the Administrative Review Committee, the Bishop, and Cabinet, therefore, proceeded prematurely by acting on the recommendation to place the Appellant on administrative location on June 11, 2020, before his time to appeal had expired.

The Judicial Council affirms the Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals' decision to remand the following enumerated arguments of the Appellant to the Conference Administrative Review Committee for an Administrative Appellate Hearing and also affirms the additional points made by the Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals that follow thereafter herein below:

  1. The notification of the fair process hearing failed to meet the standards of ¶ 361.2(b) in that the notification did not supply sufficient detail to allow the respondent to prepare a response.
  2. The matter before the Conference Relations Committee failed to meet the requirements of ¶ 359.1(a) in that the record showed the Bishop failed to meet these requirements.
  3. The matter before the Conference Relations Committee failed to meet the requirements of ¶ 359.1(b) in that the record showed the Bishop failed to meet these requirements.
  4. The matter before the Conference Relations Committee failed to meet the requirements of ¶ 359.1(c) in that the record showed the Bishop failed to meet these requirements.
  5. The matter before the Conference Relations Committee failed to meet the requirements of ¶ 359.2 in that the record showed the Bishop and District Superintendents failed to meet these requirements.
  6. The matter before the Conference Relations Committee failed to meet the requirements of ¶ 20 and Judicial Council Decision 917 as [one of the elders in full connection] who worked on this matter as a District Superintendent also participated as an officer of the Conference Relations Committee by taking the record of the Fair Process hearing on June 4, 2020, and participating in the deliberations of the Conference Relations Committee and Conference Board of Ordained Ministry as demonstrated by registering a vote.
  7. The Conference Relations Committee failed to meet the requirements of ¶ 361.2 and Judicial Council Decisions 698, 784, 836 in that it failed to provide a written verbatim record of its proceedings.

In resolving these questions on remand, the Administrative Review Committee must first ensure that both Appellant and the Administrative Review Committee itself have received copies of all records relied upon by the relevant Conference bodies in making their recommendation or determination that Appellant be placed on administrative location. That much is required by Discipline ¶¶ 361.2(e) and 2718.4(f).

Regarding Appellant's claim for "back pay," the Conference correctly concluded that, even assuming it was appropriate for the clergy session to proceed with its vote on June 11, the subsequent filing of this appeal stayed Appellant's placement on administrative location. And that, coupled with the expiration of the three-year limit on involuntary leaves of absence, left Appellant in "good status" and eligible for an appointment effective July 1, 2020. In late June, however, Appellant declined the Bishop's invitation to meet to discuss an appointment, effectively making himself unavailable for an appointment during the 2020‑2021 appointment season. Consequently, the Appellant is not entitled to "back pay" during the time this appeal has been pending. [footnotes and internal references omitted]

We acknowledge that our holding today could very well result in another fair process hearing by the Administrative Review Committee, another consideration of the case by the Northeast Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals, and a further appeal back to us before ever reaching a final decision on the substance of this case as to whether the Appellant should be placed on administrative location. However, as we pointed out in JCD 1361, the solution to such a circuitous system of adjudicating administrative complaints lies in the hands of the General Conference.

Decision


The decision of the Northeast Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals is affirmed.

Judicial Council member Ruben T. Reyes passed away on September 13, 2021. The layperson elected as first alternate, Warren Plowden, now sits on the Council and participated in these deliberations and Decision.

 

November 1, 2021


Concurring and Dissenting Opinions


Concur in Part and Dissent in Part

I concur with my colleagues that the decision of the Northeast Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals is affirmed. However, I have some concern about the use of the term “Administrative Appellate Hearing” which is not mentioned in ¶ 2718.4. Legislative work belongs to the General Conference and not to the Judicial Council. The Judicial Council merely interprets legislation that has been passed. This renaming is overreaching the authority of the Judicial Council.

Kabamba Kiboko
November 1, 2021



I join the concurrence and dissent of Rev. Dr. Kabamba Kiboko and note that reasonable people may perceive the Judicial Council as having usurped the power and authority that is constitutionally vested in the General Conference. Indeed, the Judicial Council cannot create and replace the nomenclature nor procedures that are set forth in the Discipline; such actions are vested exclusively with the General Conference and far exceed the scope of the Judicial Council’s authority.

In this particular situation, I believe that it would have been prudent, preferable, and in keeping with the Council's historical practice of exercising judicial restraint, if the Judicial Council had simply advised Annual Conferences that Appellants must be afforded the ability to timely avail themselves of the Disciplinary procedures provided for Administrative matters. The Discipline now specifically provides that once an Appellant has exhausted all of the procedural remedies available in the Annual Conference then, if there are errors in church law which were not addressed or remedied within the Annual Conference, the Appellant may bring an Administrative Appeal before the Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals. In this instance, it should also be emphasized that the 2016 General Conference specifically intended that Appellants must be afforded a formal hearing before the Administrative Review Committee prior to deciding whether to appeal such errors to the Jurisdictional Committee on Appeals.

I do take issue with the majority’s statement in the last paragraph that “our holding today could very well result in another fair process hearing by the Administrative Review Committee...” [emphasis added]. To be clear, the problem in this particular Appeal was that there was never any type of formal hearing held by the Administrative Review Committee at any point. The only hearing afforded the Appellant was that which was held by the Conference Relations Committee [¶ ¶ 361, 363].

Furthermore, I believe that General Conference was attempting to do its best at addressing the underlying problems inherent in the pre–2016 Disciplines when it added these provisions which provide a recourse for Appellants who might not have been afforded adequate fair process procedures as required by the Discipline in Administrative matters [¶ 2718.3 and ¶ 2718.4]. Indeed, the Judicial Council had noted this lack of a remedy in a number of Decisions and Memorandums issued prior to the 2016 General Conference. Hence, I believe that the content of the last paragraph is somewhat harsh and fails to acknowledge or appreciate the intentions and efforts made by the 2016 General Conference in this first attempt and initial creation of a mechanism that seeks to address potential injustices and failures to ensure fair process in Administrative proceedings. Finally, it does not seem appropriate to disparagingly summarize these procedures as constituting a “circuitous system of adjudicating administrative complaints” when the 2016 General Conference was merely trying to address an issue which had been raised by the Judicial Council in its own Decisions.

Beth Capen
November 1, 2021