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08/11/83 FRED J. ZAISER v. GEORGE MILLER

August 11, 1983

FRED J. ZAISER, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
GEORGE MILLER, ET AL., DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS. AND FRED J. ZAISER, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
GEORGE MILLER, ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS



From the Circuit Court of Howell County; Civil Appeal; Judge Winston V. Buford; Reversed and Remanded

Before Flanigan, P.j., Greene, C.j., Titus, Crow, JJ.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Greene

This case involves a dispute between two factions who were members of the St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church of West Plains, Missouri. A schism occurred because of differences of opinion on doctrinal matters. Plaintiffs and defendants, each representing a class, claimed the right to possession and control of the church property.

Plaintiffs brought suit. In Count I of their amended petition, plaintiffs asked for a declaratory judgment under Rule 87, V.A.M.R., requesting that the court declare they, and those parishioners they represented, had adhered to the faith, creed, doctrine and practices of the church, as such had existed prior to the division of the congregation, and that the individual defendants, and those they represented, had not. They also asked for a declaration that plaintiffs were entitled to the church property, subject to an equitable adjustment with respect to "the debt against the church property . . . ." Count II was a quiet title action in which plaintiffs requested a declaratory judgment that they were fee simple owners of the real estate on which the church had been built, subject to the security interest of the mortgage holder. Count III was an action to eject defendants, who were in possession of the church property.

In their counterclaim, defendant requested a declaration that the church property belonged to a corporation defendants had formed after the schism. The Missouri District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (Synod), named in plaintiffs' petition as a party-defendant so that any declaration of the rights of plaintiffs and defendants would be binding on all parties in interest, filed a Crossbill in Interpleader, stating that it held title to the real estate on which the church was built to secure payment of a note made by "St. Paul Lutheran Church", with a balance due on the note, as of October 3, 1980, being $24,643.03.

On June 2, 1981, the trial court ordered plaintiffs and defendants to each deposit the sum of $25,070.10 in the registry of the court, and ordered the Synod to deposit a warranty deed to the church property in question in the court registry. It further ordered the court clerk, after the warranty deed and money was deposited as ordered, to pay the Synod $25,070.10, at which time the Synod was to be discharged as a party. The court's minutes indicate that the money was deposited, the deed was received, $25,070.10 was disbursed to the Synod, and that the Synod was discharged as a party-defendant. The $25,070.10 figure mentioned in the court's order was the loan balance of $24,643.03, plus interest on that amount from October 3, 1980 until June 2, 1981.

The case was court-tried on July 21, 1981, and taken under advisement. On May 6, 1982, the trial court filed "Findings of Facts, Conclusions of Law, Order, Judgment and Decree." In that document, the trial court stated, as a purported complete judgment, "IT IS, THEREFORE, THE ORDER, JUDGMENT AND DECREE that the relief sought by the plaintiffs is denied and that the plaintiffs have and recover Twenty Two Thousand Five Hundred Dollars ($22,500.00) as their interest in St. Paul [referred to in the findings of fact as St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church] and that said award be a special lein on said property and that all other relief sought by the parties against each other is denied and the costs over and above the filing fee taxed equally against the parties."

Plaintiffs and defendants both appealed. Plaintiffs contend that the trial court erred, in its findings of fact and Conclusions of law by concluding defendants were the owners of the church property because 1) under Missouri corporate and property law, the ownership of the church property passed to plaintiffs as the legal successors to St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church, 2) a quit claim deed dated July 20, 1981, purportedly conveying real estate from the St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church, a Missouri corporation, to St. Paul Lutheran Church, a Missouri corporation, and used by the trial court to support its Conclusion that the defendants "are now the owners . . . of the . . . property" was erroneously admitted into evidence, 3) in not deferring to a "Ruling and Decision" of the Board of Appeals of the Synod that plaintiffs had adhered to the faith, creed, doctrine and established practices of the congregation as it existed prior to the division, while defendants' group had not, and 4) the award of $22,500 to plaintiffs' group was clearly erroneous and against the weight of the evidence, and if plaintiffs were not to receive the church property, the undisputed evidence showed they were entitled to at least $50,820.10.

In their appeal, defendants contend that the $22,500 awarded plaintiffs was not supported by substantial evidence.

In Counts I and II of plaintiffs' amended petition, and in defendants' counterclaim, the parties asked for declaratory judgments. In such circumstances, if the pleadings state a cause of action for a declaratory judgment, and they do here, the trial court must make a declaration of the rights of the parties, and include such declaration in its judgment. State ex rel. Boyer v. Stussie, 592 S.W.2d 269, 272 (Mo. App. 1979). Making such declarations in findings of fact or Conclusions of law is not enough, as such findings and Conclusions are not a judgment. Wilhoit v. Wilhoit, 599 S.W.2d 74, 78 (Mo. App. 1980). The "judgment" in this case contains no such declaration, does not declare who has title to the real estate in question, does not determine the rights of the parties, and does not dispose of the issues raised by the pleadings.

Ordinarily, when a judgment entered by the trial court is insufficient, we remand for entry of a correct judgment, or enter such judgment as the trial court should have entered, based on the evidence before it and the law. Rule 84.14, V.A.M.R. Insurmountable difficulties prevent the application of either of those remedies in this case. In order to discuss those difficulties, a brief outline of the evidence received by the trial court is necessary.

Prior to 1924, there was no Lutheran church in West Plains. In that year, 29 people, including plaintiff Matilda Lindeman, formed a Lutheran congregation. They held services in the old Howell County Courthouse until 1928, when they built their first church. In that year, they incorporated under the name of The St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church. The duration of the corporation was for a period of 50 years. In 1941, the congregation became affiliated with the Synod. In 1969, a new church building was built on approximately four acres of land. Part of the construction cost was financed by a loan from the Synod, which took a deed to the property as security for its investment. The balance of the new church cost was paid from church funds.

In the late 1970's, a schism developed between members of the congregation. One group is represented here by plaintiffs and the other by defendants. The differences between the two groups involved theology and ...


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