Alabama judge orders mediation in Sauls’ lawsuit

[Episcopal News Service] An Alabama judge has ordered the corporation of the Episcopal Church, called the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS), and former Chief Operating Officer Bishop Stacy Sauls to engage in state-mandated mediation.

Mobile County 13th Judicial District Judge Ben Brooks’ June 12 order came after he had heard oral arguments on the Church’s request that he dismiss a lawsuit Sauls filed after he was let go from his post. Brooks told the parties to submit proposed orders on the dismissal motion by July 14.

The suit against the DFMS and an unspecified number of unnamed defendants associated with the Church claims that Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s decision to replace him as chief operating officer had damaged his reputation and has made it difficult, if not impossible, for him to be employed elsewhere in the Church. The Church had argued that the case did not belong in the Alabama courts but, instead, in New York where Sauls was based as COO.

Brooks also said in his order that the parties in the lawsuit must submit to the sort of mediation that Alabama requires in civil lawsuits. Brooks appointed Michael Upchurch, an Alabama lawyer and mediator, to lead that process. Upchurch must finish the mediation and report to Brooks by Aug. 18.

Upchurch attends St. James Episcopal Church in Fairhope, Alabama, according to his profile on the website of the Mobile law firm Frazer, Greene, Upchurch, and Baker.

Sauls filed suit in early February, nearly a year after Curry relieved him of his job. In announcing the lawsuit, the presiding bishop said that, in consultation with legal counsel, he had “tried his best to negotiate a severance with Bishop Sauls.” Curry said he made “a good faith and compassionate offer, but that offer was not accepted.

‘The presiding bishop also said that “as a steward of church resources” he could not go beyond that offer and explain it in good conscience to the Church.

The presiding bishop had announced April 4, 2016, that Sam McDonald, deputy chief operating officer and director of mission, and Alex Baumgarten, director of public engagement and mission communications, were terminated after an investigation found they “violated established workplace policies and have failed to live up to the church’s standards of personal conduct in their relationships with employees, which contributed to a workplace environment often inconsistent with the values and expectations of the Episcopal Church.”

At that time, Curry said Sauls would not continue as chief operating officer even though he had “operated within the scope of his office,” did not violate workplace policy and was unaware of the policy violations by McDonald and Baumgarten (both of whom reported to him). The three senior managers had been on administrative leave since Dec. 9, 2015, pending an investigation into formal complaints and allegations from multiple members of the presiding bishop’s staff that the three had violated personnel policies.

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