Church gets mandamus relief after former pastor sues for defamation

By Charmaine Little | May 7, 2019

HOUSTON -- A church accused of defaming one of its former pastors was conditionally granted mandamus relief April 30 in the First District Court of Appeals of Texas

The Alief Vietnamese Alliance Church and senior pastor Phan Phung Hung initially asked the Harris County District Court to dismiss Paul Nguyen’s defamation case, arguing the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. The lower court denied the claim, and the defendants filed a plea for mandamus relief with the appeals court. It wanted the appeals court to vacate the denial from the lower court, stating it didn’t have subject-matter jurisdiction via the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. The appeals court conditionally granted the request. 

In his argument, Nguyen said his case isn’t covered by the doctrine since Hung’s alleged statements weren’t referring to the church’s discipline or governance but instead sparked by the personal issues between them.

The appeals court settled the matter and said, “We conclude that Hung’s allegedly defamatory statements are likewise ‘inextricably intertwined’ with matters relating to an internal struggle between a current and former leader of the church over church governance, the standard of morals required of leaders of the church, and the reason for Nguyen’s leaving or being expelled from the church.”

It said even if it was personal malice, the statements Hung made were related to expelling a former church leader. While Nguyen said his reputation was tarnished, the court said there’s no proof Hung did more then explain Nguyen’s absence.

“We conclude that Nguyen’s defamation claim against Hung and the church necessarily involves ecclesiastical matters that should be resolved within the church itself rather than the civil courts," the court ruled. "We hold, therefore, that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applies to this claim and that the trial court erred by denying the church’s plea to the jurisdiction.”

Nguyen’s relationship with Hung and the church went bad after Nguyen’s wife, Mai, went to Hung for marital counseling. She said she was afraid Paul Nguyen was being unfaithful after he was seen having lunch with another woman. Nguyen denied having an affair and said the woman, as well as others, requested ministerial advice from him. Still, that was just the tip of the iceberg in the broken working relationship between Hung and Nguyen. 

Some time later, Paul Nguyen decided to take a break from the church, and alleged that Hung told members it was because he had an affair. Hung also allegedly told the board that he fired Nguyen. After that and other alleged rumors about Paul and Mai Nguyen from Hung, Mr. Nguyen filed a defamation lawsuit against Hung and the church. The church filed a plea of jurisdiction saying the lower court lacked jurisdiction because of the doctrine. The case arrived in the appeals court after the lower court denied the church’s second plea. 

Justice Evelyn V. Keyes wrote the opinion.  Justice Laura Higley concurred as Justice Sarah Beth Landau dissented.  She said Paul Nguyen’s step down had no relation to the alleged affair rumors. She said Hung took part in nothing more than gossip and in this, and any case, mandamus relief shouldn’t be smoothed over. 

Keyes said, “Per the allegations, pastor Hung offered salacious and concerning information about Nguyen to others without mentioning church discipline.” Considering this, she disagreed with granting the church mandamus relief. 

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