Bruno wins in California Superior Court

by Jon White

The conflict over the fate of St James the Great in Newport Beach, California has taken another turn in Orange County Superior Court.  The restriction in the deed to the property which stipulated that the property should be returned to the original donors unless the property was used for a church has been nullified.  However, the diocese has also been ordered to pay $108,182.51 in legal costs for the other side.

From the Los Angeles Times:

“In the judgment, dated Tuesday, [Judge David] Chaffee said, “The court further decrees that the restriction in the 1945 grant deed that the property ‘shall be used for church purposes exclusively and no building other than a church and appurtenances may be erected, placed or maintained thereon’ (the ‘use restriction’) is released and/or is otherwise unenforceable and invalid, and Griffith has no interest that is adverse to the church in the property.””

 

This case had three Causes of Action; Quiet Title, Declaratory Relief, and Slander of Title.  The judge ruled in favor of Bruno on the first two, but the defendants, Griffith company prevailed on the third which entitled them to the judgment to recover attorney’s fees.  There is no word yet on whether or not Griffith Company will appeal.

 

This ruling, as it pertains to this particular situation however, may be moot.  The Bishop has been ordered by the Disciplinary Board for Bishops and the Presiding Bishop to not enter into any sale while the matter of Bruno’s conduct is still being adjudicated by the Church.

 

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Rev. David Justin Lynch
Guest

There is a case in California law called New v. Kroeger, 167 Cal. App. 4th 800 (2008), which states that the Courts in California will defer to, and enforce, any decision as to clergy discipline rendered by the highest authority of a hierarchical church. In other words, with the restriction on Bruno still in place, a California Court will respect the decision of the Presiding BIshop and/or Disciplinary Board and/or Hearing Panel enjoining him from selling the Newport Beach property. The church discipline process has personal jurisdiction over Bruno regardless of in what capacity he acts. The secular courts will respect that jurisdiction and likely hold that any sale wherein Bruno facilitates it in any way in violation of the restriction is invalid. No reasonable attorney advising the Buyer would advise her/his client to accept title under those circumstances. Burnham-Ward is more likely than not going to walk away. As to the determination of the Griffith Deed, a California Judgment is final after 60 days to give the dissatisfied party time to appeal. Given the high stakes and emotional investment by the parties in this case, an appeal is a certainty, and following that, a Petition for Writ for discretionary review to the California Supreme Court no matter how the appeal is decided. In that this is a rapidly developing area of law, it is highly likely the Cal Supreme will take the case. What I see happening is that Bruno will get slammed by the Hearing Panel and either resign of be deposed, and Bishop Taylor will have the problem in his lap. Taylor doesn't have the same outsized ego and Bruno does, so whatever is done going forward, will a) be transparent and b) involve the people of St. James. The JUST thing to do, would be to simply deed the property to the parish and be done with it. The alternative is several more years of litigation that will cost the Diocese more and more money that will not only sop up money that could be used for ministry, but place the Diocese and TEC as a whole in a very bad light in the public eye. I, for one, am no longer part of TE, which in my opinion is overly focused on money and power. Further, I believe Christians going to Court against other Christians over church matters, particularly within the same denomination, is not what Jesus taught and should be condemned in the strongest terms.

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Bill Paul
Guest
Bill Paul

Yes, that is the point. Speculative, of course, but the New Bishop qua Corp Sole could, as the post says, renegotiate and sell if the need for cash is overwhelming. He is not bound by a Disciplinary Proceeding. I mean, I wouldn't do it. But it isn't out of the realm of possibility.

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Eric Bonetti
Member

Excellent points, Jim. And who in their right mind would want the reputational issues associated with kicking a congregation out of its church home? Unless this is a non-arm's-length transaction with benefits not immediately obvious to the developer, this is a deal from which any rational actor would run.

On a related note, I find the posturing coming out of the diocese to be profoundly unpleasant. Still no sign of anything but silly power games.

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Bill Paul
Guest
Bill Paul

Of course, Bruno might be able to work with the new Bishop and arrange for a new sale, or renegotiated sale by the new Bishop via Corp Sole, with standing committee approval, something not out of the realm of possibility, perhaps, given the dollars (and presumably financial needs of the Diocese) involved.

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Ann Fontaine
Editor

The Corp Sole and the Bishop Diocesan are the same entity. Once +Bruno retires - the Corp Sole is no longer his.

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Jim Pratt
Guest
Jim Pratt

David Johnson, the legal action to quiet title is entirely separate from the disciplinary process. The court decision merely states that the original donor of the land has no rights and cannot block the sale of the property, and that the Corporation Sole holds unencumbered title to the land.

A separate issue, which is impacted by the disciplinary process, is whether Bruno is still canonically and lawfully the Corp Sole and empowered to sell the property.

I am not sure how California law and canon law would interact, but if I were representing the buyers (I practiced real estate law in Massachusetts before ordination), I would not advise my clients to move forward with the purchase, given uncertainty on Bruno's legal capacity to sign. Essentially the buyers would be buying into litigation.

What is really concerning is the amount of money that Bruno is spending to sell the property. The Corp Sole now owes the Griffith Co. over $100,000 for their legal fees in defending spurious claims by Bruno; one can assume that their total legal fees were at least 3 times as much, and that legal fees for the Corp Sole were at a comparable level. So my guess is that the action to quiet title has cost the Corp Sole somewhere in the neighborhood of $400K-500K. Add to that the broker's commission on the first sale that fell through (probably in the 2-3 million range), costs of maintaining the property since the congregation has been locked out, and fees and costs associated with the second sale, and the "profit" from the sale will be quite small. This is far from wise stewardship of church assets. But then again, this seems not to be so much about stewardship, but about Bruno's ego.

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Professor Christopher Seitz
Guest
Professor Christopher Seitz

I don't disagree Marshall. My point is that +Bruno cannot be constrained by Title IV when it comes to conveying property. And I also agree with Paul Powers' additional point on this matter. If TEC wants to create a top down hierarchy which would prevent this sort of thing, it will have to think hard about the role of a Bishop and a Diocese and get them all to agreeto it. Ttile IV is reaching its limits here in respect of the Bishop of LA.

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