Oral Arguments heard in appeal
December 12, 2016
A federal false-advertising lawsuit against the bishop of a breakaway group should be sent back to U.S. District Court in Charleston for trial on its merits, attorneys representing the Episcopal Church’s bishop for eastern South Carolina argued before a three-judge panel in Richmond, Va., on Friday, December 9.
Listen to audio of the hearing here. [45 minutes]
The federal lawsuit, vonRosenberg v. Lawrence, was filed in March 2013, a few months after Mark Lawrence and a breakaway group announced they were leaving The Episcopal Church. The suit involves a claim of false advertising under the federal Lanham Act.
At the time the suit was filed, Bishop vonRosenberg was the only bishop recognized by The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion as bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina. The appeal seeks a decision returning the suit to U.S. District Court and a preliminary injunction against Mark Lawrence, who, by continuing to represent himself as bishop of the diocese, is committing false advertising, the lawsuit says.
Attorney Thomas S. Tisdale presented the oral arguments on behalf of the bishop before the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Richmond on Friday; attorney Henrietta Golding represented Mark Lawrence in the proceedings. The panel consisted of Judges Roger Gregory, Diana Gribbon Motz, and Richard D. Bennett.
“We hope the court will allow us to have a trial on the merits of the action in U.S. District Court,” Mr. Tisdale said Monday. A ruling is expected soon, he said.
U.S. District Court Judge C. Weston Houck had issued a stay in the case in September 2015, delaying a ruling until the final outcome of a separate state lawsuit that is now before the South Carolina Supreme Court. Bishop vonRosenberg appealed that decision.
Earlier in the case, Judge Houck had granted a motion to abstain from the case, citing the pending state lawsuit. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit appeals court found that the judge applied the incorrect legal standard in deciding to abstain, and should have followed the principles set forth in the Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States decision, which says the court may abstain only in “exceptional” circumstances.
In his order of September 22, 2015, Judge Houck said that the case does present the exceptional circumstances necessary for him to defer to the state courts on the matter. Attorneys for the bishop appealed, saying the case does not meet the “exceptional circumstances” test.
The state litigation involves a suit filed by the breakaway group against The Episcopal Church and its local diocese, The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, over control of the assets and identity of the diocese. An appeal in that case is currently before the South Carolina Supreme Court. Oral arguments were heard September 23, 2015; a ruling has not yet been issued.
Queried by judges about whether they had any expectation of when the state Supreme Court would issue its opinion, lawyers for both sides said they had none, but that decisions taking more than a year were not uncommon. A South Carolina statute stipulates the number of days within an opinion must be issued, but according the lawyers the statute is rarely if ever enforced. The lawyers were also asked if the court had communicated with them; they said the court had not.
No mention of Friday’s hearing in Richmond was found on the breakaway diocese website.
Christian Post in October communicated with spokespersons from both dioceses concerning the long wait for a decision in state supreme court.
H/T Ron Caldwell.