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Diocese of San Joaquin et al v. Lee M. Nelson et al

March 14, 2013


(Super. Ct. No. 39-2010-00248560-CU-MC-STK)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nicholson , Acting P. J.

Diocese of San Joaquin v. Nelson



California Rules of Court, rule 8.1115(a), prohibits courts and parties from citing or relying on opinions not certified for publication or ordered published, except as specified by rule 8.1115(b). This opinion has not been certified for publication or ordered published for purposes of rule 8.1115.

In 2007, the St. John's Protestant Episcopal Church of Stockton, which is a corporation (Parish Corporation), decided to disaffiliate itself from the Episcopal Church (Church) over doctrinal differences. The Diocese of San Joaquin (Diocese) of the Episcopal Church filed an action for declaratory relief against the Parish Corporation, claiming that the property retained by the Parish Corporation is owned by the Diocese and Church. The Diocese also named several individual defendants: the Parish Corporation's priest and members of the Parish Corporation's vestry and board of directors (Individual Defendants). The Diocese does not seek damages; instead, it seeks declarations that the Diocese owns and is entitled to possess and control the property and that, upon disaffiliation, the Individual Defendants could no longer act on behalf of the Parish Corporation.

The Individual Defendants demurred to the complaint. The trial court sustained the demurrer, citing Code of Civil Procedure section 1061, which gives the court discretion to deny declaratory relief if the relief is not "necessary or proper at the time under all the circumstances."*fn1 The Parish Corporation was not a party to the demurrer proceedings and remains as a defendant in the action.

The Diocese appeals. It claims the trial court did not rely on section 1061 to dismiss the action as to the Individual Defendants and, therefore, the only relevant inquiry is whether the demurrer was sustained on the merits of the action, which inquiry requires a de novo, rather than an abuse of discretion, standard of review. The Diocese argues for the first time in its reply brief on appeal that the trial court abused its discretion under section 1061.

We conclude that the trial court actually relied on section 1061 to dismiss the action as to the Individual Defendants and, because the Diocese failed to argue the section 1061 question in its opening brief, it has forfeited consideration of that question on appeal. In any event, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by dismissing the complaint as to the Individual Defendants.


While this opinion does not reach the merits of who owns the parish property, a brief summary of similar cases is helpful to understanding the issues relevant to this action.

" 'The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America . . . , organized in 1789, was the product of secession of the Anglican church in the colonies from the Church of England, the latter church itself being the product of secession from the Church of Rome in 1534.' [Citation.] The church . . . is governed by a general convention and a presiding bishop. In the United States, the Episcopal Church is divided geographically into dioceses, including [here, the Diocese of San Joaquin]. Each diocese is governed by a diocesan convention and a bishop. A diocese is itself divided into missions and parishes, which are individual churches where members meet to worship. A parish is governed by a rector and a board of elected laypersons called the vestry. [Citation.]" (Episcopal Church Cases (2009) 45 Cal.4th 467, 474.)

Over the past decade, some California parishes have disaffiliated from the Church over questions of doctrine. This has led to disputes over who owned the parish property. (Episcopal Church Cases, supra, 45 Cal.4th at pp. 475-476.) In Episcopal Church Cases, the Supreme Court held that (1) secular courts must not resolve questions of church doctrine, on which the courts must defer to the highest relevant ecclesiastical authority; however, (2) if the court can resolve the dispute over property ownership without reference to church doctrine, it should do so applying neutral principles of law. (Id. at p. 485.) In the case before it, the Supreme Court concluded that the local parish held the property in trust for the Church and, therefore, upon disaffiliation, the property reverted to the Church. (Id. at p. 493.)

A wrinkle in the case before us, different from Episcopal Church Cases, is that the disaffiliation came at the diocese level. The Diocese of San Joaquin, acting through Bishop John-David Schofield, disaffiliated from the Episcopal Church and took steps to change its name to the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin. (Schofield v. Superior Court (2010) 190 Cal.App.4th 154, 158-159.) And St. John's Parish joined in the diocese's disaffiliation.

The plaintiffs here are the Diocese of San Joaquin and Bishop Jerry A. Lamb, the provisional bishop installed by the Episcopal Church after Schofield's disaffiliation. (Schofield v. Superior Court, supra, 190 Cal.App.4th at pp. 159-160.)

In 2010, the Fifth Appellate District decided a case that presented the question of who is the incumbent bishop of the Diocese of San Joaquin: Schofield or Lamb. The court concluded that it is a question of church doctrine. (Schofield v. Superior Court, supra, 190 Cal.App.4th at pp. 161-162.) The court then turned to the ecclesiastical authorities and determined that the Church had deposed Schofield and recognized Lamb as the bishop of the Diocese. (Id. at p. 162.) That determination, however, left unresolved "issues concerning property transfers assertedly made by Schofield while he was the duly constituted Bishop of the Diocese of San Joaquin." (Ibid.) The Fifth Appellate District directed that those issues must be resolved in the trial court applying neutral principles of law. (Id. at pp. 162-163.)


We begin with some pertinent allegations in ...

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