The Episcopal Church in South Carolina has petitioned the state Court of Appeals for a rehearing on its right to see evidence being withheld by the breakaway group that is suing local Episcopalians for control of the name and property of the diocese.
At issue is correspondence between Beaufort attorney C. Alan Runyan and Bishop Mark Lawrence during the period leading up to November 2012, when the breakaway group “withdrew” from The Episcopal Church. Weeks later, the group filed a lawsuit in Dorchester County against The Episcopal Church and, later, TECSC.
During the discovery phase of the lawsuit, Circuit Judge Diane S. Goodstein denied a motion by TECSC to compel Mr. Runyan to produce the documents. TECSC appealed the decision in January.
On March 18, retired Judge Jasper W. Cureton issued a brief two-sentence order for the South Carolina Court of Appeals, dismissing the appeal on procedural grounds without considering it on its merits. Today, TECSC filed a petition for rehearing, seeking to have a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals review the case.
Judge Cureton’s two-sentence order says only that an order refusing to compel discovery is “not immediately appealable,” and cites a 1974 case, Lowndes Prods., Inc. v Brower, which says that discovery issues "ordinarily" cannot be appealed while a case is still pending. However, the same decision also says that discovery orders can be appealed immediately when they involve the merits of the case, or when they affect substantial rights. TECSC contends that its appeal does both, and cites cases in which the courts have granted similar motions.
In refusing to compel Mr. Runyan to produce the documents, Judge Goodstein’s ruling on November 18 appears to favor the breakaway group’s argument that they represent the continuing diocese and that TECSC is a “new” organization formed in January 2013, when it met in convention to reorganize and elect a new bishop.
However, TECSC, which is recognized by The Episcopal Church as the continuing diocese in this region, contends that any attorney-client privilege that existed with Mr. Runyan prior to the withdrawal belongs to – or should at least be shared by – TECSC. In refusing to grant access to his correspondence, “the trial court has ventured into the merits – and has done so prematurely,” according to the March 26 petition.
The state court case was stayed, or put on hold, so the appeal issues could be resolved. The breakaway group has complained about the delay, even taking the unusual step of asking the state Supreme Court to step in and speed up the process, a request to which the justices have not responded. Judge Goodstein has the trial scheduled to begin in July.
“There is no intent to create unnecessary delays, but we do have an obligation to defend this diocese in this extremely complex lawsuit that was filed against us by our former leaders and the 41 lawyers representing them,” said Holly Behre, Director of Communications for TECSC. “Our Chancellor, Thomas Tisdale, and his legal team are following all the rules and procedures and moving as quickly as possible. But this case raises important issues involving our First Amendment rights, and it will take time to resolve.”
The case is still in the discovery phase, with each side requesting and producing thousands of pages of written documents as evidence. Through that process, TECSC is finding evidence of long-held plans by diocesan leaders to leave The Episcopal Church and take property away with them. Earlier court filings by TECSC say that the 2012 “withdrawal” was the result of a scheme by several individuals that began as early as 2005.