31,521 La.App. 2 Cir. 2/24/99, Steed v. St. Paul's United Methodist Church

Decision Date24 February 1999
Citation728 So.2d 931
Parties31,521 La.App. 2 Cir
CourtCourt of Appeal of Louisiana — District of US

House, Kingsmill, Riess & Seabolt by Barbara G. Haynie, New Orleans, Jack E. Carlisle, Jr., James Madison Woods, Shreveport, Counsel for Marian Steed.

Hudson, Potts & Bernstein by Gordon L. James, Mary A. Buffington, Monroe, Counsel for St. Paul's Methodist Church.

Crawford & Anzelmo by Brian E. Crawford, Monroe, Barkley & Thompson by Walter C. Thompson, Jan K. Frankowski, New Orleans, Counsel for Odell Simmons.

Theus, Grisham, Davis & Leigh by Phillip D. Myers, Monroe, Counsel for USAA.

Mayer, Smith & Roberts by Ben Marshall, Jr., Shreveport, Counsel for Louisiana Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.


[31,522 La.App. 2 Cir. 1] NORRIS, Chief Judge.

Marian Steed, the defendant in reconvention, appeals a jury verdict in favor of Reverend Odell Simmons in the sum of $90,000 for defamation. Rev. Simmons answers Steed's appeal and questions the adequacy of the award, and both he and Steed appeal the trial judge's ruling that Steed's homeowner's policy, issued by United Services Automobile Association (USAA), did not cover the defamation claim and Steed appeals the ruling that USAA had no duty to defend her against the reconventional demand. Steed finally urges that Rev. Simmons's claim was premature and requests this court to notice exceptions of no cause of action and prescription on our own motion. For the reasons expressed, we affirm.

Facts and Procedural History

Marian Steed (Steed) was employed as choir director for St. Paul's United Methodist Church (St.Paul's) in April, 1991. As part of her job, every week she was required to attend a general staff meeting and a music meeting. The general staff meeting was on Tuesday, and the music meeting, originally on Mondays, was moved to Tuesday after the general meetings. Attending the general meetings were various members of the staff, including Rev. Simmons and Steed, and attending the music meetings were Rev. Simmons, Steed, and the organist, Angie Patton.

According to Steed, shortly after she came to work Rev. Simmons started hugging her. She testified that at first the hugs seemed innocent, but soon became lingering and made her uncomfortable. Steed reported that the hugs started in his office and would normally occur after staff meetings. Steed stated that she wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt and at first did not think anything was wrong. Steed testified that in June, Rev. Simmons came into the choir room and seemed visibly upset. She asked him what was wrong, and when he did not answer her, [31,522 La.App. 2 Cir. 2] she put her hands on his shoulders and asked again. According to Steed, Rev. Simmons then grabbed her around the waist, pulled her close to him, and tried to kiss her on her lips. She reportedly turned her head, at which time he kissed her hard on the cheek. She tried to pull away, and he let her go when he heard Ms. Patton coming into the room. Later, he asked if Steed thought Ms. Patton had seen them; Steed replied no, and told him never to touch her again.

Additionally, Steed testified that there were times when Rev. Simmons attempted to grab or touch her in the hall, in the sanctuary, and near the door of the foyer. Steed stated that on numerous occasions Rev. Simmons would tell her not to tell anyone about the incidents, or quiz her about whom she had told. When asking these questions, Rev. Simmons would either grab her by the arm or block her exit from the office. Steed reported that she told her husband, A.W., and then told Rev. Simmons that A.W. knew, and if he did not stop touching her and talking about the incidents, she would tell his wife, the district superintendent, and the Bishop. She states that she told him if he would quit talking about it, she would let the matter drop.

Steed testified that Rev. Simmons continued to badger her, so she told Ms. Patton and Margo Morgan, a member of the choir and the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee (PPR). 1 Steed then met with the chairman of the PPR, Chuck Casteel, Margo, and A.W. to discuss the situation. According to Steed, Mr. Casteel reported that Rev. Simmons, by his own admission, had "a thing going on" with her, and it was harmless. 2 Steed also testified that Morgan told her that Rev. Simmons had told her husband that he was having trouble "keeping a woman at [31,522 La.App. 2 Cir. 3] bay." Notably, Morgan did not testify and Rev. Simmons denied making the comments.

Steed testified that the amorous touching, which started at the end of April 1991, ended mid-June 1991. Steed further testified that the grabbing and blocking of her exit from Rev. Simmons's office continued, and the retaliatory conduct on behalf of Rev. Simmons and the PPR ultimately resulted in her termination on May 31, 1992. Steed further testified that she was never asked out on a date, never asked to have sex, and never propositioned in any way.

Rev. Simmons testified that he first became aware of the accusations when Steed was in his office and told him that she thought he was making a play for her. He testified that he closed the door, after asking her permission, and asked if she was joking. When told she was not, Rev. Simmons informed her that she was obviously misinterpreting his actions, and that he was a happily married man and was not interested in her in that way. Rev. Simmons reported that their next conversation was in the choir room; as he turned to leave he reached for her and she told him not to touch her. He later called her into his office; she again accused him of making a play for her and informed him that she had told her husband. Later that week, Rev. Simmons called A.W. to tell him that nothing had happened. A.W. testified that Rev. Simmons called to apologize for his actions. Rev. Simmons has steadfastly denied all allegations of wrongful conduct.

The PPR began discussing Steed's allegations on August 25, 1991, continuing into 1992, by which time a new chairman, Dr. John Cooksey, was in place. The PPR proposed various solutions to the problem, all of which were rejected by both Steed and Rev. Simmons. Steed would not accept any solution that did not involve counseling and a full acknowledgment by Rev. Simmons of his guilt before the PPR, while Rev. Simmons refused to attend any counseling or [31,522 La.App. 2 Cir. 4] admit to anything as he steadfastly protested his innocence. During this time the congregation had heard about the accusations and rumors were being spread. In an attempt to defuse the rumors, the PPR read a statement to the congregation to the effect that Steed had made allegations against Rev. Simmons, that the PPR had conducted an investigation, and that there was no factual support for the allegations.

Steed then filed an internal complaint with Phil Woodman, the district superintendent, 3 who directed the complaint to the Joint Review Committee. 4 She later withdrew her complaint, because, according to her, she was not allowed to have an attorney present or to call witnesses. Woodman, however, proceeded with Steed's complaint, and the Board of Ordained Ministers issued a statement to the bishop that Rev. Simmons had been exonerated, the complaint was resolved and reconciliation had been achieved.

After these allegations, attendance, membership, and financial support to the church drastically declined. Bishop Oden testified, through deposition, that because of this turmoil, which he attributed to the sexual harassment allegations, Rev. Simmons's spending, and the PPR's decision to hire minsters' wives to work on the church staff, he decided, with the cabinet's approval, to transfer Rev. Simmons. The Bishop then asked Rev. Blakeman to take over St. Paul's; he agreed to do so, on the condition that he could hire his own staff. Consequently, the PPR terminated the entire staff, many of whom were then rehired by Rev. Blakeman. Steed was not rehired; she concedes that she did not reapply and refused to go to the church for an interview. Several PPR members testified that [31,522 La.App. 2 Cir. 5] Rev. Simmons had nothing to do with the termination of Steed, or the other members of the staff.

In May 1993, Steed filed the instant suit against St. Paul's United Methodist Church, the Louisiana Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, Rev. Simmons, and the United Methodist Church, Monroe District for discrimination in employment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, sex discrimination and retaliatory discharge pursuant to La. R.S. 51:2231, et seq., and tort claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress and ruining her reputation. In June of 1993, Steed initiated an interview to air her charges. This was subsequently broadcast over two television stations in Shreveport and one in Monroe, and published in a Shreveport newspaper. Almost a year later, on March 16, 1994, Rev. Simmons filed a reconventional demand against Steed for defamation, and later amended his suit to include her insurer, USAA.

The district court, in various pre-trial rulings, found that all of Steed's tort claims had prescribed and dismissed the Louisiana Annual Conference because it was not Steed's employer as defined by the state and federal sexual discrimination statutes. The matter then went to jury trial, during which the district court dismissed the federal claims against St. Paul's and Rev. Simmons because St. Paul's did not have the requisite number of employees; dismissed the state claims against Rev. Simmons because the statute did not allow Steed to sue him individually; and granted USAA's motions for partial...

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