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Fired Catholic school teacher can pursue bias claim

Posted On: May. 1, 2019 4:05 PM CST

age bias

A fired Catholic religious school teacher was not a minister, and therefore can pursue her age discrimination charge against her former employer, a federal appeals court held Tuesday, overturning a lower court ruling.

In her 2016 complaint, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Pasadena in Agnes Deidre Morrissey-Berru v. Our Lady of Guadalupe School, Ms. Morrissey-Berru, who was then 65, had contended that the Hermosa Beach, California, school, for which she had worked since 1999, demoted her from a full-time teacher to a part-time teacher in 2014, then told her in May 2015 she would not be returning to work the next year because of budget cuts. She said she was falsely accused of agreeing to retire at the end of the school year.

Ms. Morrissey-Berru filed suit against the school in U.S. District Court in Pasadena, California, on charges including violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

The district court granted the school summary judgment dismissing the case on the basis Ms. Morrissey-Berru was a “minister” for purposes of the ministerial exception, and therefore could not pursue her lawsuit.

A three-judge appeals court panel unanimously overturned that ruling, citing the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School vs. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission et al., which said a religious school can claim a “ministerial exception” to a discrimination charge under the Americans with Disabilities Act for a teacher who also taught secular subjects.

“Considering the totality of the circumstances in this case, we conclude that the district court erred in concluding that Morrissey-Berru was a ‘minister’ for purposes of the ministerial exception,” said the ruling.

“Unlike the employee in Hosanna-Tabor, Morrissey-Berru did not have any religious credential, training, or ministerial background. Morrissey-Berru also did not hold herself out to the public as a religious leader or minister,” said the ruling.

While she had “significant religious responsibilities as a teacher,” an employee’s duties alone “are not dispositive under Hosanna-Tabor’s framework,” the ruling said, in reversing the lower court ruling.

The attorneys in the case could not immediately be reached for comment.