District Court Order Denying Dismissal of an Action Based on the “Church Autonomy Doctrine” Not Subject to Appellate Review Under Collateral Order Doctrine, Holds Second Circuit

In Belya v. Kapral, No.21-1498 (2d Cir. Sept. 16, 2022), the Second Circuit holds that it has no appellate jurisdiction over interlocutory orders allowing a defamation action to go forward despite the invocation of the “church autonomy doctrine.”

Plaintiff “Belya sued defendants-appellants — individuals and entities affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (‘ROCOR’ and, collectively, ‘Defendants’) — for defamation, contending that they defamed him when they publicly accused him of forging a series of letters relating to his appointment as the Bishop of Miami.” The district court denied motions to dismiss, to reconsider, to limit discovery, to stay proceedings, and to certify an interlocutory appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b).

The defendants appealed anyway, fashioned as a “collateral order doctrine” appeal. “Defendants argue that we have appellate jurisdiction based on the collateral order doctrine, which allows for appellate review of an interlocutory order if the ruling (1) is conclusive; (2) resolves important questions separate from the merits; and (3) is effectively unreviewable on appeal after a final judgment is entered.”

The Second Circuit dismisses the appeal for lack of appellate jurisdiction. The panel notes that the Supreme Court has urged that “the class of collaterally appealable orders . . . remain ‘narrow and selective in its membership,’” Mohawk Indus., Inc. v. Carpenter, 558 U.S. 100, 113 (2009), and has recognized very few categories – appeals to prevent criminal retrials implicating double jeopardy and denials of qualified immunity are two such examples.

The church autonomy doctrine is an extension of the First Amendment Free Exercise principle that courts should not interfere with “religious associations . . . in matters of faith, doctrine, and internal government.” Yet “secular components of a dispute involving religious parties are not insulated from judicial review; a court may use the ‘neutral principles of law’ approach. So long as the court relies ‘exclusively on objective, well-established [legal] concepts,’ it may permissibly resolve a dispute even when parties are religious bodies.”

The panel finds that the orders here do not meet the strictures of the collateral order doctrine.

First, ‘[n]one of the district court’s three orders is ‘conclusive,’ as none constitutes a ‘final rejection’ of Defendants’ asserted church autonomy defenses . . . [T]hey do not bar any defenses, they did not rule on the merits of the church autonomy defense, and they permit Defendants to continue asserting the defense. It is possible that at some stage Defendants’ church autonomy defenses will require limiting the scope of Belya’s suit, or the extent of discovery, or even dismissal of the suit in its entirety. But we cannot and do not prematurely jump into the fray.”

Second, “the district court’s orders do not involve a claim of right separable from the merits of the action . . . . Indeed, one of Defendants’ principal defenses to Belya’s defamation claim is the church autonomy doctrine; they argue that Belya’s claims interfere with, for example, church discipline and autonomy by impacting ROCOR’s ability to select, supervise, and discipline its ministers. For now, it appears that the case can be litigated with neutral principles of law.”

Finally, the orders are not effectively unreviewable of appeal from a final judgment. “Defendants argue that the parallels between qualified immunity and church autonomy mean church autonomy is also an ‘immunity from discovery and trial’ and thus falls within the collateral order doctrine,” as does qualified immunity. “But their analogy falls flat on a crucial point. It is true that a district court’s order denying qualified immunity is an immediately appealable collateral order — but only ‘to the extent that it turns on an issue of law.’ Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 530 (1985). The presence of factual questions [here] means we lack appellate jurisdiction to review a denial of qualified immunity.”

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