Site hosted by Build your free website today!

Six Million Dollars Awarded in
                 Sexual Harassment Case

By RUTH E. IGOE - The Kansas City Star
     Date: 12/03/99 22:15

A Jackson County jury on Friday ordered the African Methodist Episcopal Church and a church elder to pay more than $6 million to a former pastor who said she endured years of sexual harassment from her supervisor and was dismissed from her job after she complained.

Saundra McFadden-Weaver, a former City Council candidate, sought actual and punitive damages against church Elder Prince Albert Williams, Bishop Vernon Byrd and the board of incorporators of the African Methodist Episcopal church.

In closing arguments Thursday, lawyer Michael Fletcher said the church improperly dismissed McFadden-Weaver in 1996 from her job as pastor at Mariah Walker A.M.E. Church in Kansas City.

The dismissal came after McFadden-Weaver went to church superiors with complaints that Williams was harassing her. Fletcher said Williams once grabbed his client's breasts in church and often demanded sexual favors. After McFadden-Weaver complained, Fletcher said, Williams was not investigated or demoted. Instead, Byrd authorized him to remove McFadden-Weaver.

"They don't get it," he told jurors. "It's payback time. Punish this church."

Harold Whitfield, attorney for Byrd and the church, countered that the church had responded to the complaint by talking to Williams and working to resolve issues. McFadden-Weaver was later dismissed, he said, because she had started another church of a different denomination, which the African Methodist Episcopal denomination does not allow.

"I believe, based on the evidence in this case, it is impossible for you to find the A.M.E. church" blameworthy, Whitfield said.

Another attorney for Williams said there were no witnesses to a groping incident that McFadden-Weaver described as having happened in front of others.

"There has been no one to corroborate her story," Kathryn Persley told jurors. "She said there were three or four people there. Where are these people?"

Jurors deliberated about six hours before announcing their verdict Friday afternoon.

"At first I didn't even hear the numbers. I heard: `In favor of the plaintiff' and tears started rolling down my face," said McFadden-Weaver, who twice ran for the city's 3rd District at-large council seat and is now pastor at a nondenominational church in Kansas City.

"I think the numbers will send the message that needs to go out on behalf of women and children."

Jurors based those figures on her attorney's recommendations. The first award -- $1 million in punitive damages and $15,000 in compensatory damages -- was directed against Williams. The second -- of $5 million in punitive damages and $25,000 in actual damages -- was directed against Byrd and the church.

Defense lawyers and church officials could not be reached for comment on the verdict. The defense has 70 days to file motions if the church or Williams decides to contest the verdict.

Based in Philadelphia, where the church first splintered off from a Methodist Church it accused of racial discrimination, the A.M.E. Church counts 2.5 million people among its members in 24 countries.

More than 20 A.M.E. churches operate in the Kansas City area, said Presiding Elder Joseph Forbes, who helps oversee those in Kansas City, which number about 10. Forbes declined to comment on Friday's verdict.

Darryl E. Walker, senior pastor at Ebenezer A.M.E. Church in Kansas City, said the faith had worked to promote women.

"I don't think (the verdict) will affect my congregation," he said. "I believe it's an isolated incident, and it's very unfortunate. We have female pastors. We have excellent female pastors. We have a presiding elder in California who is a woman."

Dennis Egan, an employment discrimination lawyer in Kansas City, said the $6 million figure was a significant judgment against the church.

"Folks understand there is a duty to take some action" when there are sexual harassment allegations, Egan said. "Punishing the person who brings up the subject is not the way to go. There must have been something in the facts of this case that made (jurors) want to send a message."

After the trial, jury foreman Tom C. DeNegre said several factors had helped jurors reach their verdict: insufficient evidence to show that the church had thoroughly investigated the allegations; McFadden-Weaver's sudden dismissal; and the absence of key figures -- such as Byrd -- as witnesses who could directly rebut McFadden's testimony. Instead, lawyers read Byrd's deposition for jurors.

"They didn't do anything, and they weren't even there in person," DeNegre said. "If you're accused of anything, wouldn't you want to be there? It made us think they thought (the case) wasn't serious. It was serious."

All content © 1999 The Kansas City Star

    ~Updates~     ~~Return to Welcome~~   ~How Can I Help?~