UPDATE: After the February 2023 jury verdict, the conference board of trustees asked the court to either set aside the verdict or grant a new trial. In May 2023, the court decided a new trial was necessary because the jury’s verdict was against the weight of the evidence presented. This decision by the court only applies to the recent jury verdict and does not change the court’s earlier determination that the conference is the owner of the closed church’s property by operation of the trust clause.
ORIGINAL POST: 4/20/2023
Lawsuits involving the UMC trust clause for local church property have been in the news lately. Incomplete information about those lawsuits can lead local churches, and their members and leaders, to develop unrealistic expectations about pursuing a similar strategy which can, in turn, result in the unnecessary use of funds ‒ which could otherwise be directed towards mission and ministry. One such case is a seven-year lawsuit over the closure of Bayshore United Methodist Church and a school housed on that church’s property.
The lawsuit dates back to November 2018, when The Florida Annual Conference, through its board of trustees, filed a complaint seeking recognition of its ownership and possession of the closed local church’s property. (The complaint and all other documents filed in the case can be accessed here by searching for case number 18-CA-011192).
The conference had voted to close the local church (Bayshore UMC) during its 2017 session, but, according to the complaint, the congregation had refused to convey title to, and relinquish, the property. The complaint also outlined ongoing use of the local church’s property by Bayshore Christian School and sought to end its possession of the property. In short, the conference sought recognition and enforcement of the “trust clause” and the removal of both the school and the former congregation from the property.
January 2020 Ruling
The conference eventually asked the court to resolve the matter on “summary judgment,” which means the conference argued that the facts and evidence were so much in its favor that the judge could decide the outcome of the case without the need to have a full trial on the issues. In January 2020, the court issued an order upholding the trust clause and awarding ownership of the property to The Florida Annual Conference. At that time, the court stated in its order (emphasis added):
The [Conference’s] Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED as set forth herein.
Count I of the [Conference’s] Complaint for declaratory relief against the Defendant, Bayshore United Methodist Church of Tampa, Inc., is GRANTED as it is indisputable that the Real Property was held by the Defendant, Bayshore United Methodist Church of Tampa, Inc., in trust for the [Conference] and there are no valid affirmative defenses.
The Court finds that the [Conference] is the legal owner of the Real Property.
The Court finds that the [Conference] is entitled to legal title to the Real Property.
In other words, the court recognized and enforced the conference’s claim to ownership of the closed church’s property pursuant to the trust clause.
Bayshore Christian School
That January 2020 order by the court did not resolve all of the issues presented in the case. Although the ownership question had been resolved, Bayshore Christian School argued that it held a “prescriptive easement” on the property. Specifically, the school claimed it had been using the property for a sufficient time period, and without the permission of the owner, such that the owner could not now stop its use of the property.
In February 2023, a jury found in favor of the school on its prescriptive easement claim, which means the school – pending the result of any appeal that might be filed – will be able to continue to use the property. However, the jury also found that the school must pay over $1.1 million to the conference. The jury awarded this amount based on the conference’s unjust enrichment claim, finding that the school had “knowingly and voluntarily” received benefits from the conference by its use of the conference’s property and that it would be “unfair” for the school to avoid paying for the value of those benefits. (The jury verdict form outlines the questions the jury answered in reaching both of its findings.) To be clear, this recent jury verdict regarding the use of the property had nothing to do with the trust clause and did not change the conference’s ongoing ownership of the property. The court’s resolution of that issue several years earlier remains unchanged.
The trust clause, first envisioned by John Wesley over 200 years ago, continues to be regularly enforced by courts. The ruling regarding Bayshore Christian School was not about the trust clause – rather it involved both prescriptive easement and unjust enrichment claims. To summarize the litigation so far:
(1) the annual conference closed a local church via the process established by ¶ 2549 of The Book of Discipline, which, pursuant to ¶ 2549.2b, vested ownership of all property of the closed church in the conference’s board of trustees;
(2) when ownership and possession was not voluntarily relinquished, the conference sought judicial enforcement of its trust clause-based ownership claim;
(3) that claim was recognized and enforced by the court; and
(4) due to a novel fact scenario in relation to the school housed on the property, a jury determined the school is entitled to continued use, but must pay for benefits it received.
This is another example of the trust clause’s enforceability.
This analysis was written by GCFA General Counsel Bryan Mills. Questions? Contact us at email@example.com.