Judge's kindness helps ease the pain Merry-Go-Round's ex-workers grateful for a voice of concern

February 09, 1996|By Alec Matthew Klein | Alec Matthew Klein,SUN STAFF

There was no reason to be there -- except for compassion.

There was nothing on the docket, no legal snare to untangle, but in an unusual judicial move U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge E. Stephen Derby took the bench anyway for one simple reason: to address the concerns of anxious Merry-Go-Round employees, thousands of whom are being thrown out of work as the national retailer goes out of business.

A minor matter -- a disputed Merry-Go-Round lease -- was resolved earlier in the day, effectively canceling yesterday's 2 p.m. hearing. But Judge Derby kept the appointed date: He was aware that displaced employees intended to show up in his courtroom for assurances about their severance, benefits and bonuses -- all promised before the Joppa-based retailer went under, but no longer guaranteed, according to a Feb. 2 internal company memo.

"I am certainly not ignorant and unable to read the newspaper to see what has happened," Judge Derby told the gathering of 50 former Merry-Go-Round workers, representing more than 400 who signed a petition Wednesday in an appeal to the court. "I know how you all are concerned. I can't tell you what the future will be. I don't know at this juncture what this company will be able to do or propose to do. All I can tell you is, as I decide these matters I will keep in mind the employees and their rights."

Judge Derby spoke in measured tones, yet there was something paternal about his words, and something even more unorthodox about what he was doing. "It's very unusual for me to come on the bench like this," he said, given the canceled hearing. "However, I thought it only appropriate that you see who I am I am concerned about this situation."

There was no utterance from the audience. Afterward, Lewis S. Goodman, attorney for 11 Merry-Go-Round employees, said, "It's the first time I've ever seen a judge do that in 14 years."

It was a rare moment in what has been a rare bankruptcy. Since Merry-Go-Round -- a Maryland institution -- collapsed last week, shell-shocked employees have been seeking answers that have not been forthcoming from the company.

Suddenly, their paycheck is gone, but their bills are still there, and many employees don't know what the company will do about their severance and benefits.

"I have two kids, I have a mortgage," said Darlene Farrell, a 36-year-old Merry-Go-Round planner. "The big thing is, I have 16 NTC years at Merry-Go-Round doing one job, and I have no training" for another job.

For many employees, it's not just about money.

"Devastated and betrayed," said Matia Condoleon, a 37-year-old merchandise distributor. "I was one of the last people who thought we'd be able to pull out of this no matter what."

For all the bitterness and uncertainty now, Judge Derby's address raised some hope yesterday.

"Our intention was to let people's impressions be heard, and I think that Judge E. Stephen Derby has shown profound interest in this case and the people affected by it," said petition leader Eric Kyser, former senior vice president/general manager of the Dejaiz division of Merry-Go-Round. "We've forwarded petitions to the management of Merry-Go-Round this afternoon and we'll patiently await their response."

Merry-Go-Round officials could not be reached for comment yesterday. But in the first indication that some information may be forthcoming, a hearing is scheduled today at 2 p.m. in U.S. Bankruptcy Court to approve a loan agreement -- and some employee incentives.

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