Julius Sumler v. St. John Missionary Baptist Church; et al.

Timothy Blaise Broderick

Case Conclusion Date:October 15, 2003

Practice Area:Employment / Labor

Outcome:Jury ruled in favor of Sumler after 10 day trial

Description:Timothy Broderick represented Reverend Julius Sumler, and Verdict Search California Reporter declared the jury’s award as the “Verdict of the Week” in California. FACTS & ALLEGATIONS From April 2000 to June 2002, plaintiff Julius Sumler, 50, was employed as pastor by St. John Missionary Baptist Church in East Palo Alto, Calif. Sumler claimed that in December 2001, officers of the church created and sent out a letter to the congregation that contained false and defamatory information, including a statement that Sumler had misappropriated church funds. Sumler also claimed that in December 2001, the church trustees ceased paying his salary. In January 2002, the church congregation took a vote regarding whether to dismiss Sumler. A two-thirds vote, which was needed in accordance with the church’s constitution to dismiss Sumler, was not reached. In May 2002, the trustees sent a letter of termination to Sumler and in June 2002, he resigned as a pastor of the church. Sumler sued the St. John Missionary Baptist Church, alleging breach of express and implied contract. Sumler also sued individual officers of the church—Clinton Stanton, Glen Miller Sr., and Niambi K.V. Lincoln, alleging intentional inducement of breach of contract, negligent interference with prospective economic opportunity, defamation (slander and libel), intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Sumler contended that the St. John Missionary Baptist Church breached the contract when it stopped paying his salary while he was still working in his capacity as pastor of the church. Sumler asserted that the individually-named defendants defamed him when they created a letter that contained false information about him and sent it out to the church’s congregation. Sumler maintained that he suffered emotional distress due to the defamation. The St. John Missionary Baptist Church contended that it was entitled to dismiss Sumler due to his conduct and that it was entitled to cease paying his salary at the time. The trustees of the church asserted that they were authorized and entitled to dismiss Sumler. As a defense against intentional inducement against breach of contract, the individual defendants contended that their conduct was within the scope of their positions of employment with the church. As to the defamation claim, the individual defendants claimed that their statements were privileged under Civil Code § 47(c) and that the statements were not defamatory. The individual defendants also maintained their conduct was not outrageous and that Sumler did not experience any emotional distress. INJURIES/DAMAGES On the contract, Sumler claimed damages for past and future loss of salary and benefits. On the tort claims for interference with contract, defamation and infliction of emotional distress, Sumler testified about physical symptoms, but did not offer medical testimony or medical bills. Sumler based his losses on economic wage and benefit loss, harm to reputation and pain and suffering. He claimed $285,289 in past and future loss of salary and benefits. RESULT On Sumler’s cause of action for breach of express and implied contract against the St. John Missionary Baptist Church, the jury found in favor of Sumler and awarded him $285,289 in past and future compensatory damages. As to Sumler’s causes of action against Stanton, Miller and Lincoln, the jury found in favor of Sumler against Lincoln and Miller on all causes of action and against Stanton on the defamation claim and the claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress. The jury awarded $150,000 in economic damages and $150,000 in noneconomic damages (pain, suffering and harm to reputation) against Stanton, Miller and Lincoln. The jury also found malice as to the individual defendants and awarded Sumler $6,000 in punitive damages. This brought the total judgment to $591,289.