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St. Brendan High School, Inc. v. Neff

Florida Court of Appeals, Third District

October 23, 2019

St. Brendan High School, Inc., et al., Petitioners,
v.
Magali Neff, et al., Respondents.

         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

          A Case of Original Jurisdiction - Prohibition. Lower Tribunal No. 18-31703

          J. Patrick Fitzgerald & Associates, P.A., and Roberto J. Diaz and Maura Fitzgerald Jennings; Gaebe Mullen Antonelli & DiMatteo, and Joseph M. Winsby and Michael A. Mullen, for petitioners.

          Jay M. Levy; James J. Traitz, for respondents.

          Before SALTER, SCALES and LINDSEY, JJ.

          PER CURIAM.

         St. Brendan High School, Inc. ("St. Brendan") and the Archdiocese of Miami, Inc. ("Archdiocese") petition for a writ of prohibition to preclude the circuit court from exercising subject-matter jurisdiction over two counts in a pending lawsuit. The petition (and the motion to dismiss in the circuit court) invokes the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. We deny the petition.

         In a recently-decided appeal from a non-final order in the same circuit court case, we briefly described the lawsuit:

St. Brendan, a private Catholic high school in Miami-Dade County, Florida, expelled high school student, Michelle Neff, when her parents, Magali and Herbert Neff, filed a personal injury action against the school after Michelle was injured while performing community service at Good Hope Equestrian Training Center, Inc., an organization listed on St. Brendan's approved community service list. St. Brendan maintains that filing the suit against the school violated school policy, specifically certain school handbook provisions.

St. Brendan High Sch., Inc. v. Neff (St. Brendan I), 275 So.3d 220, 221-22 (Fla. 3D DCA 2019) (footnote omitted).

         The Neffs' first amended complaint ("Complaint") consists of ten counts. Count IX alleges that St Brendan's administrative withdrawal (disenrollment) of their daughter breached their enrollment agreement such that she should be readmitted as a student and provided "whatever remediation is necessary in order for [her] to become current with regard to her academic studies."[1]

         Count X alleges that St. Brendan's disenrollment of the Neffs' daughter inflicted severe emotional distress upon her and seeks a judgment for money damages. St. Brendan and the Archdiocese moved for the dismissal of counts IX and X based on their contentions that the student's disenrollment was based on the Neffs' prosecution of a lawsuit against St. Brendan in violation of the Parent-Student Handbook ("Handbook") provisions and the religious teachings and standards imposed by the Handbook.[2]

         St. Brendan's and the Archdiocese's motion to dismiss included their contention that the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction based on the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and case law comprising the "ecclesiastical abstention doctrine" or, as it sometimes also known, the "church autonomy doctrine."[3] The trial court denied the ...


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