Academic journal article Washington Law Review

Staying Neutral: How Washington State Courts Should Approach Negligent Supervision Claims against Religious Organizations

Academic journal article Washington Law Review

Staying Neutral: How Washington State Courts Should Approach Negligent Supervision Claims against Religious Organizations

Article excerpt

Abstract: The torts of negligent hiring, supervision, and retention place a duty on employers to prevent their employees from using the places, things, or tasks entrusted to them to harm foreseeable victims. The negligent employment torts create an independent duty under which plaintiffs may pursue an action when suits brought under a vicarious liability or breach of fiduciary duty theory would fail. For victims of sexual misconduct by religious leaders, negligent supervision claims against religious organizations are a crucial means of remedying serious and lasting injuries. Washington state law recognizes negligent supervision, and Washington courts have applied it to religious organizations, but these claims typically implicate First Amendment religious freedom concerns. A short series of Washington appellate cases affirming grants of summary judgment to religious organization defendants on First Amendment grounds has made it more difficult for plaintiffs to assert negligent supervision claims against religious entities. This Comment argues that Washington courts have granted religious organizations an impermissibly broad level of First Amendment protection from claims of negligent supervision, and suggests a more deliberate analytical framework for evaluating the constitutionality of such claims.

INTRODUCTION

Despite increased public awareness following the child molestation scandals that plagued the Catholic Church during the 1990s, incidence of sexual misconduct by religious leaders is still shockingly widespread.' This misconduct is a prominent problem in American society, and the tort of negligent supervision is an essential mechanism both for preventing it and for remedying the harm it causes. When individuals file negligent supervision suits against religious organizations, state courts are forced to navigate a distinct pair of directives: the dual mandates of the First Amendment's religion clauses and the general right of the aggrieved to seek recourse through the court system.2 What are courts to do if the elements of a plaintiffs claim require them to make sensitive interpretive judgments about a religion's doctrine or practice?

In the 1979 case Jones v. Wolf? the Supreme Court articulated a framework for courts to use when analyzing whether they can adjudicate common-law claims against religious organizations without violating the First Amendment.4 State courts have applied this framework in a variety of ways, including a categorical bar against such claims, a categorical allowance of such claims, and a case-by-case inquiry into whether the elements of the claims would require interpretation of the relevant religious doctrine.5 In the context of common-law negligent supervision claims, the Washington State Supreme Court has expressed approval of the latter case-by-case inquiry.6 Several recent Washington State Court of Appeals decisions, however, have employed broad language in rejecting negligent supervision suits on First Amendment grounds, creating strong precedent against such claims.7

This Comment begins in Part I by examining the tort of negligent supervision under Washington law. Part II contains a general exposition of recent First Amendment jurisprudence, giving special attention to the landmark Supreme Court case oí Jones v. Wolf. Part III examines the various approaches state courts employ in analyzing whether tort claims against religious organizations can be permissibly adjudicated within the constraints of the First Amendment. Part IV discusses how Washington courts have previously handled this issue, and examines in detail two recent appellate cases rejecting negligent supervision suits against religious organizations on First Amendment grounds. Finally, in Part V, this Comment argues that Washington courts should read this line of cases narrowly and apply the neutral principles approach articulated in Jones v. Wolf when analyzing tort claims against religious organizations. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.