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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Mississippi Church Not |Liable for Pastor’s Affair

(CN) - A Mississippi man whose wife had an affair with a pastor cannot prevail on his negligent hiring lawsuit against the church, the state appeals court ruled.

Al and Amber Backstrom were married in 1997. They had three children and attended Briar Hill Baptist Church in Florence, Miss.

In August 2011, Al began to receive counseling from senior pastor Justin McClendon. He didn't know that McClendon had been having an affair with Amber for six months.

Three months later, having learned of the illicit relationship, Al Backstrom told the church about the affair and about McClendon's counseling sessions with him. McClendon voluntarily resigned.

Backstrom sued McClendon for malpractice, breach of fiduciary duty, alienation of affection, negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

He also sued Briar Hill for negligent hiring, retention and supervision, as well as respondeat superior and vicarious liability and negligence.

Briar Hill asked the trial court for a summary judgment, arguing that there was no way it could be found liable for McClendon's actions. The trial court agreed.

"There has been no summary judgment evidence presented that Briar Hill knew or should have known that (McClendon) was unfit to serve as Senior Pastor or that he was prone to the activities complained of by [Al]," the judge ruled.

Backstrom took the case to the Mississippi Court of Appeals, arguing that Briar Hill failed to discover that McClendon had committed adultery and had an alcohol-related arrest.

However, the appeals court upheld the verdict on Jan. 12, as Judge Virginia Carlton noted the efforts of the church's pastor search committee in checking 17 references in addition to those on McClendon's resume.

"Briar Hill states that it also performed a background check on Justin through Safe Hiring Solutions and Freecreditreport.com, specifically seeking information on his criminal, sexual, driver's license and credit reports," Carlton wrote. "Briar Hill maintains that no negative report was found or reported.

She added that according to the church, the search committee interviewed McClendon and his wife for two hours on a variety of topics.

Clinton also stated that Backstrom failed to prove that Briar Hill should have discovered Justin's previous affair.

"The record shows that Justin's prior affair arose from a private business relationship of Justin, and not out of his prior pastoral position," she wrote. "The record reflects that Justin claimed to not even recall the name of the woman."

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