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In re Alief Vietnamese Alliance Church

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

April 30, 2019

IN RE ALIEF VIETNAMESE ALLIANCE CHURCH AND PHAN PHUNG HUNG, Relators

          Original Proceeding on Petition for Writ of Mandamus

          Panel consists of Justices Keyes, Higley, and Landau.

          OPINION

          EVELYN V. KEYES JUSTICE.

         This mandamus proceeding involves a dispute between real party in interest Paul Nguyen, who filed a defamation suit against relators, the Alief Vietnamese Alliance Church and its senior pastor Phan Phung Hung (collectively, "the Church").[1] The Church filed a plea to the jurisdiction, arguing that the trial court should dismiss the suit under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. After the trial court denied the Church's plea, the Church filed this petition for writ of mandamus. In one issue, the Church requests that we grant mandamus relief and order the trial court to vacate its denial of the plea to the jurisdiction and dismiss the suit because the trial court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.

         We conditionally grant mandamus relief.

         Background

         In August 2016, Nguyen filed suit against the Alief Vietnamese Alliance Church-a member church of the Christian & Missionary Alliance (C&MA), a worldwide Protestant denomination-and its senior pastor Phan Phung Hung, asserting a claim of defamation. Nguyen alleged that he was instrumental in starting the Church in 1990 and that, in the years since the Church opened, he has served in various leadership roles, including as a deacon, as the church treasurer, and as an associate pastor. Nguyen alleged that he served as interim pastor during 2011 and 2012, and then the district office of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Vietnamese District-the governing district of the C&MA denomination over the Church-recommended that Hung become the new senior pastor. Hung began serving in this capacity in November 2012.

         Nguyen alleged that, at the end of 2014, as his term of serving as secretary of the Church's board and as a deacon was coming to an end, he felt he needed to take a break from ministry, and he decided not to seek re-appointment to leadership positions.[2]

         In January 2015, Nguyen's wife, Mai, approached Hung for marital counseling, allegedly telling Hung that she had seen Nguyen having lunch with two female church members and that she was concerned about Nguyen's fidelity. Hung held a meeting at his home with Nguyen and Mai. Nguyen allegedly informed Hung and Mai that he had been asked by the other women to provide marital and spiritual guidance to them and that he was not romantically involved with either woman. Hung suggested that the three of them pray and that they not mention the incident again.

         Several months later, in August 2015, Hung and Nguyen began having conflicts concerning issues within the Church, including the proper form of address in Vietnamese for Hung's wife and Hung's decision to take a month-long trip to Vietnam without informing the Church leadership of his plans. Nguyen alleged that, during a phone conversation with Hung, Hung stated that Nguyen and Mai had "criticized Pastor Hung's way of pastoring to the members within the Church," that they had "caused emotional hurts" and had offended Hung and other Church members, and that Hung "was tired of dealing with issues related to" Nguyen. In response, Nguyen "decided to take a break from attending the Church."

         Nguyen alleged that, after several weeks of his not attending services at the Church, fellow parishioners began questioning Hung about Nguyen's absence, and Hung reportedly told one of the Church officers that Nguyen had "committed adultery with a woman in the church and that is why [Nguyen] was no longer a Deacon and why [Nguyen] did not attend services."

         Nguyen further alleged that, at a September 2015 meeting of Vietnamese pastors in Austin, Texas, Hung told the other pastors in attendance that Nguyen was no longer a member or elder of the Church but did not state a reason why. According to Nguyen, one of the pastors at the meeting contacted Nguyen and asked why he was no longer a member of the Church. He alleged that this surprised him because he thought he was still a member.

         Hung allegedly also informed the Church board on September 20, 2015, that Nguyen and Mai "were no longer members of the Church as Pastor Hung had terminated [Nguyen] as a member of the Church." Nguyen alleged that Hung also informed all of the deacons of the Church that Nguyen had committed adultery with a fellow Church member. Nguyen also alleged that he contacted members of the C&MA Vietnamese District leadership in an attempt to solve the matter, but the district leadership took no action. Nguyen alleged that he informed the deacon board in October 2015 that Hung had violated the law by slandering him and that he "wanted the Church to be at peace and for things to settle down." Nguyen declined invitations from the Church leadership to meet with the deacons.

         Nguyen filed this suit for defamation against the Church and Hung in August 2016. In his suit, Nguyen alleged that his reputation in the Church community, and in the larger Vietnamese Christian community, had been damaged by Hung's statements. He alleged, "[M]ost of the members of the Church, along with other church leaders within the city of Houston and the denomination, have learned of this accusation, which is completely false." Nguyen sought actual and exemplary damages from the Church and Hung.

         The Church filed a plea to the jurisdiction, arguing that the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the dispute based on the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. The Church argued that, even if Nguyen's allegations were true, "the disputes identified are replete with issues of church discipline, ecclesiastical government, and the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them," matters that courts have repeatedly held should not be addressed in the secular courts. The Church argued that resolving Nguyen's defamation claim would "impinge upon the internal matters of [Church] governance," especially because Nguyen was not just a member of the Church, but had been an associate pastor and a former deacon.

         As evidence, the Church attached to its plea to the jurisdiction the bylaws of the C&MA Vietnamese District, as well as the C&MA Manuel, which included, among other topics, procedures for resolving disciplinary matters within the Church. Specifically, the Manual for the C&MA contained a "Uniform Policy on Discipline, Restoration, and Appeal," which applies to all elected personnel of C&MA entities and all members of C&MA churches. The discipline policy states:

In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus outlines the steps which should be taken to resolve conflict and exercise redemptive and restorative discipline in the church. The process begins with private conversation. However, if private conversation fails to lead a person to repentance, Jesus commands that we ask other believers to become involved in these conversations. If he will not listen, Jesus said, take one or two others along (Matthew 18:16). When personal conversations fail to resolve the matter, Jesus instructs us to "tell it to the church." This signals a move to more specifically defined disciplinary procedures outlined in this document.
The C&MA encourages the mediation of personal conflicts whenever such measures are both possible and appropriate. Within the polity of the C&MA, we have purposed to fill Jesus' instructions to exercise church discipline by providing an orderly procedure by which the appropriate ecclesiastical authority may be informed and respond. These disciplinary policies and procedures are implemented only after other appropriate steps have proven ineffective. They also recognize that some sins are of a public nature and cannot be addressed with personal conversation alone.
If an offense is not likely to cause imminent harm to others or to the testimony of Christ, and if the offense is not of such a nature that it would ordinarily disqualify a person from positions of leadership in the Church, the proper ecclesiastical authority may choose to confront an individual entrapped by sin privately to establish the facts and encourage repentance of any sin discovered. If the individual acknowledges his/her sin and repents, the matter may end there, unless a confession to additional people and public or private restitution is needed. In such cases, and when individuals have confessed of their own accord, the proper ecclesiastical authorities may, after an informed investigation, determine the extent and nature of disciplinary actions which may be imposed without a formal disciplinary hearing.
If an individual is unwilling to acknowledge or repent of sin, or if an offense is likely to harm others or lead them into sin, cause division or disruption within the church, or compromise the public testimony of Christ and the C&MA, the proper Church authority shall initiate formal disciplinary procedures as determined by this Policy.

(Emphasis in original.)

         The discipline policy sets out formal procedures to be followed in investigating complaints of misconduct. The policy also lists several examples of conduct that can give rise to a disciplinary proceeding, including "[m]oral failure involving sexual misconduct," "[s]preading false rumors about another," and "[c]ausing dissension or division within the church." The policy states that "[d]isciplinary proceedings will be conducted with confidentiality in all aspects of the proceedings; however, there is no guarantee of confidentiality within disciplinary proceedings for any participant" and provides that, in some cases, disclosure of the particular facts might be necessary "in connection with investigating and remedying the charge and considering and carrying out possible restoration."

         After a visiting judge denied the Church's plea to the jurisdiction, the Church filed a second plea. In addition to the arguments raised in its initial plea to the jurisdiction, the Church also attached Nguyen's deposition as evidence. In his deposition, Nguyen testified that his decision to step away from his leadership positions within the Church in early 2015 was unrelated to Mai's accusation that he had been involved in an adulterous relationship. He testified that, during the January 2015 meeting with Mai and Hung, he repeatedly denied committing adultery, and he stated that he continued to be involved with the Church for several months after that, albeit not in a formal leadership position. Nguyen also testified that, after he learned that Hung had allegedly told Church deacons that Nguyen had committed adultery, he wrote to the district offices seeking their assistance in resolving the matter. Nguyen stated that he brought the underlying lawsuit because the district office failed to act. Nguyen also testified that he sued the Church, in addition to Hung, because members of the deacon board informed members of the Church and at least one former member of the Church that Nguyen had committed adultery.

         In response to the Church's second plea to the jurisdiction, Nguyen argued that this case involved Hung's lying about Nguyen's behavior and did not involve matters of church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or conformity of church members to required standards of morals. He argued that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine "does not prohibit courts from determining a case of defamation where the defendant, who happened to be a pastor, lied to the public about a parishioner."

         Hung testified that, from January 2015 through August 2015, he did not inform anyone at the Church about Nguyen's alleged adultery. Hung also testified that he told the adultery allegations to one of the Church board members and his wife "in order to explain to them the reason why [Hung] did not allow [Nguyen] to work in the church." Hung also testified that Nguyen had contacted the Church board members and called Hung dictatorial and had asserted that Hung could not carry out the position of pastor. Hung further testified that, between January and July 2015, the Church did not discipline Nguyen for the alleged adultery, but Nguyen "voluntarily accepted the discipline" by removing himself from the Church board and withdrawing from other leadership roles.

         Nguyen also cited excerpts from Hung's deposition and argued that those excerpts were evidence that the conflict that arose between the two men in August 2015 was unrelated to Mai's earlier accusation of adultery, and that it was only after this unrelated conflict had occurred that Hung defamed Nguyen to Church members. Hung stated in his deposition that he and Nguyen had a conflict in August 2015 because Nguyen had told Church members that Hung had asked everyone to refer to his wife by a specific title in Vietnamese, and Hung told Nguyen that when Nguyen "says something untrue like that, it causes a confusion in the church." It was only after the conflicts over issues within the Church arose in August 2015 and Nguyen quit attending services that other Vietnamese pastors and the Church deacons became involved in questioning what had happened and that Nguyen contacted the C&MA Vietnamese District leadership in an attempt to solve the matter. However, Nguyen declined invitations to meet with the Church's leadership and subsequently brought this suit.

         The trial court denied the Church's second plea to the jurisdiction, and this mandamus proceeding followed.

         Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine

         In its sole issue, the Church contends that the trial court clearly abused its discretion when the court denied its plea to the jurisdiction because the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applies and deprives the court of subject-matter jurisdiction.

         A. Mandamus ...


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