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Jenkins v. Refuge Temple Church of God in Christ, Inc.

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

July 25, 2018

Delories Jenkins, Respondent,
Refuge Temple Church of God in Christ, Inc., and Wayne Penn, Sr., Daniel Ward, Jr., James A. Tucker and Eronda Jackson, Individually and as Members of the Board of Directors of Refuge Temple Church of God In Christ, Inc., Defendants, of whom Refuge Temple Church of God in Christ, Inc., is Appellant. Appellate Case No. 2016-000213

          Heard March 6, 2018

          Appeal From Richland County L. Casey Manning, Circuit Court Judge

          Timothy J. Newton and Peter E. Farr, both of Murphy & Grantland, PA, of Columbia, for Appellant.

          Kenneth C. Hanson and Walter Marion Riggs, both of Hanson Law Firm, PA, of Columbia, for Respondent.

          SHORT, J.

         The Refuge Temple Church of God in Christ, Inc. (the Church) appeals from the circuit court's order granting judgment to Delories Jenkins (Respondent) for breach of contract, arguing the circuit court erred in (1) ruling on this case because civil courts lack subject matter jurisdiction to rule on ecclesiastical matters; (2) finding the alleged contract at issue was properly executed and approved; and (3) finding the Church waived its objections by operating pursuant to the alleged contract for several years. We reverse.


         Pastor Elder Edward Jenkins, Respondent's husband, founded the Church in June 1997. Pastor Jenkins served as the Church's incorporator, first pastor, and chair of the Board of Directors (Board). Pastor Jenkins incorporated the Church under the laws of South Carolina as a nonprofit corporation through Articles of Incorporation (the Articles) filed in June 1997. Article V of the Articles states a three-director Board manages the affairs of the Church. Article VI of the Articles reveals the initial Board consisted of Pastor Jenkins, Connie Bowman, and Gary James, Sr.

         The initial Board of the Church adopted bylaws in June 1997. These bylaws provide the congregation's members would be nonvoting members and the Board members would be voting members. The bylaws require individuals to attend worship services at the Church for at least three consecutive months prior to consideration for membership. The bylaws authorize the Board to manage the affairs of the Church, impose upon the Board a fiduciary obligation to the Church, and mandate the Board will consist of no less than three members. The bylaws establish a majority of the Board shall constitute a quorum, and specify the act of a majority of the Board shall be the act of the Board. The bylaws grant the pastor the authority to fill any vacancy in the Board with the advice and consent of a majority of the present Board. Finally, the bylaws allow the Board to authorize any officer or agent of the Church to enter into any contract or execute and deliver any instrument on behalf of the Church.

         On March 13, 2002, the Board, consisting of Pastor Jenkins, Bowman, and Daniel Webster Ward, Jr., held a special meeting to consider and vote on an employment agreement entitled "Pastor's Employment and Retirement Agreement" (the Agreement) to retain Pastor Jenkins as the Church's pastor for life. After discussion, Ward made a motion to approve the Agreement, which Bowman seconded. The Board unanimously adopted the Agreement.

         Section four of the Agreement, entitled "Death of Pastor," provides in pertinent part:

In the event of the Pastor's death, if Pastor is survived by his spouse, [Respondent], a monthly sum equivalent to the Pastor's monthly salary and housing allowance, which will become salary at the time of his death shall be paid to [Respondent] for the remainder of her life, even if she leaves the church.

         Section six of the Agreement explains the Agreement is binding on all parties, revokes all prior employment agreements with respect to Pastor Jenkins, and states, "It is also[] agreed that in the event of Pastor's death or total disability, this Agreement shall become irrevocable."

         The Church employed and paid Pastor Jenkins until his death on April 4, 2004. After Pastor Jenkins's death, the Church began paying Respondent $1, 575 each month. On April 5, 2005, the Church's new pastor, Pastor Elder Wayne Penn, received a letter from Mozzini Justice, an accounting firm hired by the Church, informing him that Respondent had been receiving a housing allowance and salary from the Church and recommending the Church reclassify the payment as a retirement plan as opposed to income for tax purposes because the payments "weren't quite legitimate." On February 4, 2010, the Church wrote a letter to Respondent proclaiming the Church could no longer afford to keep paying her the monthly amount of $1, 575. The letter explained the Church had been compensating Respondent "in honor of the service of yourself and your late husband, our pastor, the Elder Edward Jenkins and to help you financially during the transition." The Church's letter stated Respondent would receive the regular payment amount for February and March 2010, and then a reduced amount of $500 from April 2010 until December 2010, at which time the payments would cease. However, Respondent never received another payment after a $500 check in April 2010.

         On February 25, 2011, Respondent filed a complaint against the Church alleging breach of contract, failure to pay wages under the South Carolina Payment of Wages Act, [1] and tortious interference with contract. After presenting her case in a bench trial, Respondent withdrew her claim for tortious interference with contract and dismissed the individual defendants named in her lawsuit, leaving only the Church in its official capacity. In its order granting judgment to Respondent, the circuit court found the Agreement a valid and enforceable contract, determined the Board possessed the authority to execute the Agreement, and noted the Church honored the Agreement with Respondent from 2004 to January 2010. As to her second cause of action, the circuit court found Respondent ...

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