Sumner v. Simpson UniversityAnnotate this Case
Plaintiff Sarah Sumner was the dean of A.W. Tozer Theological Seminary (Tozer Seminary), part of defendant Simpson University in Redding, California. Although Sumner had a written employment agreement, her employment was terminated by Robin Dummer in his capacity as acting provost of the university on the ground Sumner was insubordinate. In response to Sumner’s complaint alleging breach of contract, defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, defendants moved for summary judgment on the ground Sumner’s employment was within the ministerial exception, an affirmative defense, and that as a result judicial review of her employment-related dispute was precluded by the First Amendment. The trial court agreed, and granted summary judgment. Sumner argues the ministerial exception was not applicable because she was not a minister, and the facts were in dispute as to whether Simpson University was a religious organization. She argues that even assuming the ministerial exception is applicable, it did not preclude enforcement of her contract and tort claims. The Court of Appeal concluded the trial court correctly concluded that Simpson University was a religious organization and that Sumner was a minister for purposes of the ministerial exception, but that her contract cause of action was not foreclosed by the ministerial exception. Defendants failed to show that resolution of Sumner’s contract claim would excessively entangle the court in religious matters. However, her tort causes of action were part and parcel of the actions involved in her termination, and were therefore barred by the ministerial exception.