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Appeals Court Rules Against Missouri Baptist Convention, Blasts Its Attorneys

The latest chapter in the nearly 12-year legal saga among Missouri Baptists ended Tuesday with another stinging defeat for the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC).
A unanimous three-judge ruling from the Southern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals against the MBC focused on rules broken by the MBC’s attorneys.

The appellate court defeat for the MBC executive board came in its second lawsuit against Windermere Baptist Conference Center.

The MBC’s first lawsuit against Windermere, filed in 2002 in Cole County, also named four other Baptist ministry organizations.

The Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals unanimously ruled in 2009 for Windermere, and the MBC later dropped its suit against another of the ministries (Word&Way newspaper) while the other three cases remained in the courts.

Quoting the 2009 appellate court ruling against the MBC, this week’s ruling asserts, “The ‘disingenuous’ position of The Executive Board, along with their ‘convoluted and fastidious’ distinctions, have made this appeal even more challenging, not to mention the burdens placed upon the trial court.”

The second MBC lawsuit against Windermere, filed in 2006 in Camden County, named several other defendants (also called “respondents” in the ruling), including financial institutions and businesses that worked with Windermere.

Among those sued in the case were William Jester and several of his businesses, which led him to file a counterclaim in 2008.

Last year, EthicsDaily.com broke the news that the MBC quietly settled the counterclaim brought by Jester, who died in 2010, by paying $500,000 to his estate.

MBC leaders later admitted they kept the settlement a secret and did not report it to Missouri Baptists.

Following the news of the settlement in the Jester case, Windermere’s trustees authorized the filing of a similar suit against the MBC last year. That case remains in the court system.

Last year, a circuit court judge ruled against the MBC in the Camden County lawsuit, setting up this week’s appeal decision.

After the appellate court’s decision, Windermere’s trustees issued a statement noting they are “very pleased with the outcome of this latest litigation” and “glad that the actions previously taken by Windermere have been affirmed in this litigation.”

Their statement expressed their “hope and prayer that Baptists in Missouri can return to open and meaningful communication instead of speaking through attorneys.”

This week’s ruling offers a long background to the case, noting “the Byzantine journey this case has made through our courts” as the MBC filed multiple versions of the lawsuit in two different counties. The ruling notes the case has brought “more than 4,000 pages of legal file.”

The ruling declared that MBC attorneys violated two state rules governing filings in court cases: Rule 74.04 and Rule 84.04.

Noting the basic expectations articulated in Rule 74.04 for motions of summary judgments and responses to such motions, the judges found the MBC “completely disregarded the requirements” and the MBC’s “responses to Respondents’ statements of unconverted material facts fall woefully short of the requirements.”

“The Executive Board failed to just admit or deny each of the Respondents’ numbered statements of fact,” the opinion explained. “Factual allegations in a motion for summary judgment which are not properly denied in accordance with Rule 74.04(c)(2) are deemed admitted.”

Regarding Rule 84.04, which describes basic contents of legal briefs, the judges faulted the MBC’s attorneys for not following the requirement to “correspond to the factual statements in the consecutively numbered paragraphs of the various motions for summary judgment filed by the defendants.

“We were simply unable to determine from The Executive Board’s Statement of Facts which material facts were established by the motions for summary judgment and which material facts were properly denied in response,” the opinion declared.

The judges noted that “[m]any of The Executive Board’s responses and additional material facts were supported by and relied upon” a document that “was stricken by the trial court.”

The opinion criticized the MBC’s filing since it “improperly relies almost exclusively” on the stricken document.

“The Executive Board has not challenged the trial court’s ruling as to the Collins Affidavit,” the opinion added about the document’s standing. “The Executive Board’s misguided reliance on the Collins Affidavit to support additional material facts alleged to be in dispute is fatal to The Executive Board’s claims because we may not consider the Collins Affidavit on appeal.”

The judges added that the MBC’s documents “would require this Court to become an advocate” for the MBC by forcing the Court to search through the records, which the judges noted “we cannot do.”

“Here, the Executive Board’s failure to comply with Rule 84.04 is so serious as to impede our appellate review,” the opinion added. “The Executive Board has now presented its claim to a Missouri appellate court on four occasions, and at this stage, we simply cannot overlook The Executive Board’s gross violations of Rule 84.04.”

Although unnamed in the ruling, the MBC’s attorneys on the case are Michael Whitehead and Michael Blanton.

Windermere individually named Whitehead in its recent lawsuit against the MBC, suing him for his non-lawyer roles as MBC parliamentarian and spokesperson.

Prior to this week’s decision, Whitehead praised the three appellate judges for understanding the case.

“The judges were very familiar with the case,” Whitehead said earlier this month. “We are pleased that they were so engaged. They asked the right questions. I hope our answers helped them to understand our legal position.”

It remains unclear if MBC leaders will appeal the ruling or seek different legal counsel after the ruling’s harsh critique of their attorneys.

The MBC did not respond to a request for comment from EthicsDaily.com. The Missouri Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from MBC after the convention’s 2009 appellate loss.

Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com and an editorial assistant for Churchnet. You can follow him on Twitter: @BrianKaylor.