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Date: 05-22-2023

Case Style:

Bernadette Bell v. Judge Memorial Cathloic High School, et al.

Case Number: 2:20-cv-829

Judge: Robert J., Shelby

Court: United States District Court for the District of Utah (Salt Lake County)

Plaintiff's Attorney:

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Defendant's Attorney: Jennifer H. Mastroocco and Zachary E. Peterson

Description: Salt Lake City, Utah civil litigation lawyer represented Plaintiff who sued Defendants claiming that they discriminated against him because of his age.

Plaintiff Barry Bell filed this action against his former employer, Defendant Judge Memorial Catholic High School (JMCHS) and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Salt Lake City dba Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City (Diocese), alleging Defendants discriminated against him in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).[1] Now before the court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, seeking summary judgment on Bell's claim on the grounds that (1) he cannot demonstrate his age was a determinative factor in JMCHS's decision to not renew his teaching contract, and (2) the ministerial exception applies to bar liability for JMCHS's decision.[2] For the reasons discussed below, Defendants' Motion is DENIED.


At summary judgment, the court reviews the parties' agreed-upon factual record and draws all reasonable inferences therefrom in favor of Bell, the nonmovant.[3] The following facts are drawn from the parties' summary judgment briefing and attached affidavits and exhibits,[4]and are not genuinely in dispute, unless otherwise indicated.[5] They are admitted to the record for summary judgment purposes.

I. Summary Judgment Record of Bell's Termination

Bell was an experienced educator when he started working at JMCHS during the 2006- 2007 school year, first as a substitute teacher coordinator and later as a special education and social studies teacher, among other positions.[6] As with other educators at JMCHS, Bell worked under successive, one-year contracts.[7] The last contract offered to Bell was for the 2018-2019 school year, when he taught social studies part-time and continued serving as a substitute teacher coordinator.[8] During that period and the preceding school year, Bell received generally favorable classroom evaluations by Vice Principal Louise Hendrickson, with notes that his students were “comfortable,” “attentive,” and engaged.[9]

By the fall of 2018, however, Bell was placed on a corrective action plan.[10] The parties dispute the reasons for the corrective action plan. Defendants maintain that it was largely due to Bell's “negative interactions with JMCHS's administration and his colleagues,”[11] while Bell counters that the corrective action plan was “styled as a first written warning” and was “part of a discriminatory pattern during the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 school years in which JMCHS falsely accused Bell of misconduct.”[12] In any event, on April 17, 2019, JMCHS notified Bell that it would not be renewing his teaching contract for the upcoming school year.[13] The decision was made by two key administrators at JMCHS: Principal Patrick Lambert and Hendrickson.[14]

In addition to stating that Bell had a difficult relationship with JMCHS staff and faculty[15]-a claim Bell disputes[16]-Defendants contend his termination was part of a net reduction in force (RIF), caused by “declining enrollment” and a concomitant need for fewer teachers.[17] Given these pressures, Defendants aver JMCHS reviewed its slate of social studies teachers and determined that both Bell, then 65 years old, and Eve Grenlie, then 39 years old, “were not as effective teachers in the classroom as the other social studies teachers, and . . .
decided to not offer teaching contracts to either teacher.”[18] Instead of retaining these teachers, Defendants determined they could replace both of them with a single, more effective teacher.[19]Defendants offered several additional reasons for JMCHS's decision to select Bell for the RIF, ranging from Lambert's determination that Bell was not an effective classroom teacher to the purported negative interactions between Bell and his colleagues.[20]

Bell disagrees with Defendants' stated reason for the termination and argues the RIF- purportedly affecting only him, his wife, and Grenlie[21]-was pretextual.[22] The real reason for his termination, he counters, can be gleaned from the “subjective and ageist characterizations” given by JMCHS leaders during the course of litigation and a pattern of discrimination he argues can be shown by the school's 2019-2020 employee changes.[23] Additionally, Bell contends his termination was preceded by numerous unwarranted critiques and disciplinary actions by JMCHS administrators.[24] Finally, he avers Lambert explained the non-renewal at the time saying only that the school was “going in a new direction.” Bell argues that the RIF was adopted a month later only as a post-hoc justification for his termination.[25]

Regardless of the reasoning for Bell's termination, the parties do not dispute that two days before Bell was notified of his non-renewal, Defendants hired Jonathan Garrison, then 33 years old, for the 2019-2020 school year.[26] Garrison's employment contract provided that he would serve as a teacher with additional paid responsibilities “moderating Student Council” and “covering the Substitute Coordinator duties.”[27] During the 2019-2020 school year, Garrison was assigned to teach numerous social studies courses,[28] which Bell avers he was qualified to teach.[29]Garrison did not teach any psychology courses, which had previously accounted for much of Grenlie's courseload.[30] As discussed below, the parties dispute whether Garrison was hired as a replacement for Grenlie or Bell, with Defendants generally taking the former position and Bell the latter.[31]

On May 9, 2019, several weeks after Bell was notified of his non-renewal, Lambert told Bernadette Bell she was being terminated as part of a RIF.[32] Thereafter, JMCHS Advisory Board Meeting Minutes for May 14, 2019, reflected that “[t]here [would] be a slight [RIF] for 2019-2020.”[33] Several days later, Lambert signed a separation report for Barry Bell, stating, among other things, that the “Reason for [Bell's] Separation” was a permanent RIF and that the separation was not related to “any prior disciplinary action.”[34]

In September 2019, Bell filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging age discrimination by Defendants.[35] Approximately one year later, the EEOC closed the case and returned a Notice of Right to Sue,[36] prompting the instant action.[37] Following the close of fact and expert discovery, Defendants filed their Motion, seeking summary judgment on the grounds that (1) Bell “cannot demonstrate that his age was a factor, let alone the determinative factor, in JMCHS's decision to not offer him a new teaching contract” and (2) “the ministerial exception applies to [his] claim . . . and [] protects JMCHS's decision to hire and fire ministers within the school.”[38] Defendants' Motion has been fully briefed, oral argument was heard on April 18, 2023,[39] and the matter taken under advisement.

II. Summary Judgment Record of Bell's Religious Responsibilities at JMCHS

Because Defendants invoke the “ministerial exception,” a doctrine that generally turns on whether a religious institution's former employee “performed vital religious duties” or was “entrusted most directly with the responsibility of educating . . . students in the faith,”[40] a brief discussion of JMCHS's ecumenical and pedagogical stances are also warranted. Furthermore, Defendants' argument for summary judgment requires an overview of the relevant facts surrounding Bell's tenure at JMCHS, with a focus on his religious responsibilities and expectations.[41]

As its name suggests, JMCHS is a Catholic high school serving grades 9-12. It seeks “to create a Christian educational community where knowledge is enlightened and enlivened by faith.”[42] As part of this “distinct purpose,” JMCHS's teaching contracts require teachers, including Bell, to acknowledge that “Catholic Schools are ministries of the Catholic Church within the diocese of Salt Lake City and not simply places where secular subjects are taught.”[43] Additionally, JMCHS's contract requires faculty to acknowledge the following guiding principles:

That those who instruct and mentor youth in Catholic Schools are in positions of trust and authority and are looked up to by those same youth, and that therefore personal behavior and acting responsibly and morally in one's own life is vital; the school is an expressive religious association that exists to instill Gospel teachings and value; that, although an Equal Opportunity Employer, that does not prevent the school from employing and retaining teachers based upon religious beliefs.[44]

Nevertheless, JMCHS does not refrain from hiring teachers-such as Bell-who are not Catholics.[45] However, school policy requires that they “understand and are fully committed to the distinctive purpose, philosophy, and spirit of Catholic school education,” and “live within the Catholic spirit and teachings regarding lifestyle.”[46] Additionally, non-Catholic teachers are barred from “teach[ing] a Catholic religion class.”[47]

The parties do not dispute that Bell was neither an adherent of the Catholic faith nor a teacher of any religion classes during his time at JMCHS.[48] Nevertheless, Defendants suggest his role as a teacher and administrator at JMCHS came with heightened religious expectations, which were repeatedly referenced by his teaching contracts[49]-namely, that he “[s]upport and implement[] the mission/philosophy of Catholic education and the school,” “[g]ive[] evidence of lived Gospel values,” and “[p]articipate[] in building faith community.”[50] Defendants maintain these obligations, and other expectations of JMCHS educators, support their contention “that Bell was a minister during his employment at JMCHS.”[51] Bell disputes Defendants' characterization of his tenure at JMCHS and notes that he did not teach any theology courses, did not lead his students during religious services, and was not required to obtain any religious training[52]-facts Defendants accept as true for summary judgment purposes.[53]

Having discussed the record set forth in the parties' briefings and attached affidavits and exhibits, the court next turns to the legal standards governing the parties' disput

Outcome: Defendant's motion for summary judgment denied.

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