Jury award to minister overturned White clergyman said he was barred from job because of race

'Miscarriage of justice'

$180,000 verdict labeled excessive by federal judge

September 06, 1997|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

A federal judge overturned yesterday a $180,000 jury award to a Methodist minister who claimed he was dissuaded from heading an East Baltimore black community development group because he was white.

U.S. District Judge Walter E. Black Jr. said the award was excessive and ordered a new trial in the Rev. John A. Shirkey's case against the missionary arm of the United Methodist Church New York.

TTC "It would be a miscarriage of justice to let [the award] stand. Therefore the Court will set aside the verdict," Black wrote.

The judge also invited the church's attorneys to file a motion to reconsider whether the church discriminated against Shirkey in the first place.

"We plan to file the motion before Sept. 26," said Bruce Harrison, a partner with the Baltimore law firm Shawe & Rosenthal, which )) represents the church. "We are hopeful and have reason to believe that the court will view that motion sympathetically."

If the judge finds that Shirkey wasn't the victim of discrimination, there will be no new trial.

Neither Shirkey nor his attorneys returned phone calls yesterday.

Shirkey, who in 1966 became the first white minister of a mostly black Methodist church in Maryland, claimed his civil rights were violated in spring 1991 when a Baltimore pastor told him that a paid position in a black community development program was reserved for blacks.

The year before, Shirkey had organized the nonprofit Eastwind Community Development Corp. to help East Baltimore residents and the homeless find food, health care and housing. He was the executive director, an unpaid position.

When he sought a subsidized salary through the black community development program, established in the 1960s to help confront racism and redevelop neighborhoods around the nation, he turned to the United Methodist Church.

The job description read: The community developer will be from the indigenous population.

For Shirkey, the problem arose because East Baltimore is predominantly black.

In September 1993, Shirkey sued the missionary arm of the United Methodist Church. He also sued the Baltimore-Washington Conference, but that case was dismissed because Shirkey was not directly employed by the organization.

In May, a Baltimore jury awarded Shirkey $60,000 in back pay and other economic losses, and $120,000 in compensatory damages.

Black faulted the verdict, saying in his opinion, "The Court finds that there was insufficient evidence presented at the trial to support the $60,000 amount. Shirkey himself testified that he neither sought nor obtained any grants or wage paying work following his termination with Eastwind in June 1991."

The judge also said that the $120,000 in compensatory damages was awarded "against the great weight of the evidence presented at trial regarding the emotional, medical and reputational injuries Shirkey allegedly sustained."

Shirkey testified at the trial in May that he was so devastated by the church's alleged rebuff that he was unable to perform daily functions, in part because of nausea, headaches and thoughts of suicide.

The judge pointed out that Shirkey testified that he never sought "psychological or mental health counseling" and that he did not present testimony from medical professionals regarding his condition.

Pub Date: 9/06/97

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