St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church, Inc. v. Smith, No. 72

CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Writing for the CourtGARRITY; Writing on behalf of the Court in King
Citation74 Md.App. 353,537 A.2d 1196
Docket NumberNo. 72
Decision Date01 September 1987
PartiesST. LUKE EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN CHURCH, INC., et al. v. Ginny Ann SMITH. ,

Page 353

74 Md.App. 353
537 A.2d 1196
ST. LUKE EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN CHURCH, INC., et al.
v.
Ginny Ann SMITH.
No. 72, Sept. Term, 1987.
Court of Special Appeals of Maryland.
March 3, 1988.

[537 A.2d 1197]

Page 354

H. Patrick Donohue, Rockville (Armstrong, Donohue & Ceppos, Chartered, on the brief, for appellant, St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church, Inc.).

Page 355

Ellen A. Efros, Washington, D.C. (Vorys, Sater Seymour & Pease and John A. DiNucci on the brief, for appellant, Buchenroth).

Keith A. Minoff (Glenn M. Cooper, Mindy G. Farber and Paley, Rothman & Cooper, Chartered, on the brief), Bethesda, for appellee.

Argued before MOYLAN, BISHOP and GARRITY, JJ.

GARRITY, Judge.

This appeal arises out of a church employee's defamation and invasion of privacy suit, which was tried before a jury in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County (Judge Stanley Frosh presiding). Upon finding that an assistant pastor of the church had acted with malice while acting within the scope of his employment, the jury returned a verdict on both counts against the church and its assistant pastor for compensatory and punitive damages. 1

Appellant St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church, Inc. (St. Luke) raised only one issue which we will need to review in this appeal:

Whether the trial court committed reversible error in granting plaintiff eight peremptory strikes.

Appellant Rev. David M. Buchenroth (Pastor Buchenroth) posits the following issues:

1. Whether the trial court erred in instructing the jury that Ms. Smith was not a public figure.

2. Whether the trial court committed reversible error in failing to instruct properly on the attachment of and burden of proof as to a qualified privilege.

3. Whether, as a matter of law, Pastor Buchenroth acted with malice.

Page 356

FACTS

Shortly after graduating from the University of Maryland in 1983, Ms. Ginny Ann Smith (Ms. Smith) was hired as the Associate Director of Youth Ministry at St. Luke's. She had been an active member of the church since childhood and had participated in many church-sponsored activities.

At the time Ms. Smith was hired, St. Luke had three pastors, Senior Pastor Raymond Shaheen, Associate Pastor David R. Shaheen (Pastor Shaheen) and Assistant Pastor David Buchenroth (Pastor Buchenroth). As part of her responsibilities, Ms. Smith worked alongside Pastor Shaheen as Administrative Assistant for Crossroads, a conference of church youth from throughout the Maryland Synod of the Lutheran Church, and Tent Troupe, a drama group sponsored by St. Luke which traveled four months a year. Ms. Smith had been highlighted in the St. Luke Messenger, a weekly journal, on two occasions for her continuing contributions to the church.

In February, 1984, Ms. Smith went on a church-sponsored trip to the Holy Land with other members of the church, including Pastor David Shaheen and one of his sons. In Ms. Smith's absence, Pastor Buchenroth had occasion to go into her office in search of a file regarding an upcoming church event. While searching, he discovered a file marked "DRS-GAS" which contained personal correspondence from Pastor Shaheen to Ms. Smith. He removed the [537 A.2d 1198] file and went through its contents as he "was curious as to what the correspondence was." After examining the letters and notes contained in the file, Pastor Buchenroth concluded that they confirmed his suspicion that Ms. Smith and Pastor Shaheen were involved in a sexual relationship. While seeking advice from a trusted co-worker, Mrs. Joan Patton, Pastor Buchenroth allowed her to examine the file. Mrs. Patton confided to Pastor Buchenroth that she had recently come upon Pastor Shaheen and Ms. Smith as they were engaged in an embrace. She thought it best to tell Pastor Shaheen's wife, Ellen, of the developing situation as evidenced by the nature of the notes and letters.

Page 357

Shortly thereafter, Pastor Buchenroth advised both Pastor Shaheen's wife and Mrs. Virginia Smith (Ms. Smith's mother) that he believed that Pastor Shaheen and Ms. Smith were having an affair. He explained to Mrs. Smith that by an "affair," he meant that they were "sleeping together." As he had provided Mrs. Shaheen with the background of his belief, Pastor Buchenroth provided Mrs. Smith with specific times and places where he thought the liaisons had been taking place. He further offered his belief that Pastor Shaheen and Ms. Smith might not return from the trip.

After Ms. Smith and Pastor Shaheen returned from the Holy Land, they were asked to attend several "counseling sessions" which had been arranged by the senior pastor in an effort to promote a "healing process." In addition to Senior Pastor Raymond Shaheen and his son Pastor David and Ms. Smith, other persons in attendance included Ellen Shaheen, Virginia Smith, Dr. Cheryl Wilhoyte (Chairperson of St. Luke's Committee on Staff) and Rosemarie Rhyne (St. Luke's Director of Counseling Ministry). The group discussed the letters that had been found and the accusations which had been made. Mrs. Shaheen had reviewed the correspondence earlier and had thoroughly discussed the situation with her husband.

Based primarily on Mrs. Shaheen's belief that the "affair" between her husband and Ms. Smith was not of a sexual nature, Pastor Buchenroth acknowledged to the group that he no longer believed the affair to have been sexually oriented. He further apologized to Ms. Smith and to Pastor Shaheen for "any pain that might have been caused" by his accusations. In an effort to avoid having the charges leaked to the congregation, everyone in the group, including Pastor Buchenroth, vowed to keep the entire matter confidential.

Because of the obvious discordant working relationship that developed following his accusations, Pastor Buchenroth made an appointment to see the Bishop of the Maryland Synod to request a transfer. Before meeting with the Bishop, however, Pastor Buchenroth visited the home of his

Page 358

personal friends, Mr. and Mrs. Rupert, both of whom were active members of the St. Luke congregation. Mr. Rupert also served as an officer in the church. After explaining that he was breaking a vow of confidentiality, Pastor Buchenroth divulged to the Ruperts that he had come across a file of letters written by Pastor Shaheen to Ms. Smith and what had taken place in the aftermath of his discovery. In essence, Pastor Buchenroth "bared his soul" to the Ruperts and "described to them how we got in the predicament we were in." Contrary to his representation earlier that he had made to the Committee on Staff that he no longer believed the relationship to have been of a sexual nature, however, he related specific instances in which Ms. Smith and Pastor Shaheen had opportunities to be alone while traveling. He then postulated that such a relationship was inappropriate between a married pastor and a staff member. Pastor Buchenroth further related to the Ruperts that he was dissatisfied with the lack of progress that the Committee on Staff was making in resolving the situation and that he did not want to be the "fall guy."

As a result of his conversation with Pastor Buchenroth, Mr. Rupert contacted Mrs. Patton, Senior Pastor Shaheen, Dr. Wilhoyte, and Stanley Benning, a member of the Committee on Staff who also served with Mr. Rupert on the Board of Governors [537 A.2d 1199] for Hallowood. 2 Mr. Rupert warned Mr. Benning that unless some action were taken to prevent Pastor Shaheen and Ms. Smith from both participating in Tent Troupe, he would contact the parents of the children who participated in the drama group and tell them what Pastor Buchenroth had alleged.

Due to Mr. Rupert's threat, beginning in late May, 1984, the Committee on Staff began to conduct a long series of meetings addressing the issue. At several of these meetings, each of the persons involved was required to answer questions posed by members of the Committee. Pastor

Page 359

Buchenroth appeared and told the Committee why he believed that there was an affair between Ms. Smith and Pastor David. He reported to the Committee, as he had to Virginia Smith and the Ruperts, the specific times and places where he thought the affair had been taking place.

When asked to relate her perception as to what Pastor Buchenroth had described regarding the nature of the relationship between Ms. Smith and Pastor Shaheen, the chairperson of the Committee on Staff, Dr. Wilhoyte, testified:

Based on the reference to the October Philadelphia trip, 3 to an incident that occurred in Hunt Valley, 4 to the amount of time spent together, and to his decision to go to Mrs. Shaheen with the letters and indicate what he believed about the relationship, I felt that all of that from Pastor Buchenroth had led him to believe that there was an affair between Pastor David Shaheen and Ginny Ann Smith.

After the Committee met several times, a proposal that Ms. Smith be placed on administrative leave, because of the charges Pastor Buchenroth had made, was adopted and then deferred until the next meeting. On June 18, 1984, Ms. Smith appeared before the Committee on Staff and was requested by Senior Pastor Shaheen to relinquish her responsibilities voluntarily. Although continuing to express that the "charges" against her were false, Ms. Smith advised the group that she would voluntarily resign but would continue to serve as a member of the Tent Troupe staff. She then left the meeting and returned to Hallowood to rejoin Tent Troupe. Later that evening, Dr. Wilhoyte went to Hallowood and advised Ms. Smith that the Committee would not accept her offer of resignation.

Page 360

The Tent Troupe staff was then made aware of the charges that had been made and the Ruperts' pending threat to tell all Tent Troupe parents about Pastor Buchenroth's allegations unless Ms. Smith were prevented from going on the tour to New England. The next day, a statement was read by the Tent Troupe staff which described the allegations that had been made of "an...

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12 practice notes
  • Eagle-Picher Industries, Inc. v. Balbos, EAGLE-PICHER
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • September 1, 1989
    ...the co-defendants 31 to exercise separately the strikes granted to the party. In St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church, Inc. v. Smith, 74 Md.App. 353, 537 A.2d 1196 (1988), rev'd on other grounds, 318 Md. 337, 568 A.2d 35 (1990), we restated the two-step process used in Kloetzli for matters ......
  • Eagle-Picher Industries, Inc. v. Balbos, EAGLE-PICHER
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Maryland
    • September 1, 1991
    ...579 A.2d 1191, 1207 (1990), aff'd on other grounds, 325 Md. 385, 601 A.2d 123 (1992); St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church v. Smith, 74 Md.App. 353, 361, 537 A.2d 1196, 1200 (1988), rev'd on other grounds, 318 Md. 337, 568 A.2d 35 (1990); and to Kloetzli, supra, where the trial courts, upon......
  • St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church, Inc. v. Smith, No. 44
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Maryland
    • September 1, 1988
    ...Smith's attorney's fees on the issue of punitive damages was error. 3 We granted both petitions for certiorari. St. Luke Church v. Smith, 74 Md.App. 353, 537 A.2d 1196 Peremptory Strikes Maryland Rule 2-512(h) provides: Each party is permitted four peremptory challenges plus one peremptory ......
  • Globe Sec. Systems Co. v. Sterling, No. 1037
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • September 1, 1988
    ...A.2d 601 (1983). Like Kapiloff, both Harnish and Sherrard involved public figures. St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church, Inc. v. Smith, 74 Md.App. 353, 371-74, 537 A.2d 1196 (1988), cert. granted, 313 Md. 9, 542 A.2d 845 (1988), held that a conditional privilege is defeated by a private per......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
12 cases
  • Eagle-Picher Industries, Inc. v. Balbos, EAGLE-PICHER
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • September 1, 1989
    ...the co-defendants 31 to exercise separately the strikes granted to the party. In St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church, Inc. v. Smith, 74 Md.App. 353, 537 A.2d 1196 (1988), rev'd on other grounds, 318 Md. 337, 568 A.2d 35 (1990), we restated the two-step process used in Kloetzli for matters ......
  • Eagle-Picher Industries, Inc. v. Balbos, EAGLE-PICHER
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Maryland
    • September 1, 1991
    ...579 A.2d 1191, 1207 (1990), aff'd on other grounds, 325 Md. 385, 601 A.2d 123 (1992); St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church v. Smith, 74 Md.App. 353, 361, 537 A.2d 1196, 1200 (1988), rev'd on other grounds, 318 Md. 337, 568 A.2d 35 (1990); and to Kloetzli, supra, where the trial courts, upon......
  • St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church, Inc. v. Smith, No. 44
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Maryland
    • September 1, 1988
    ...Smith's attorney's fees on the issue of punitive damages was error. 3 We granted both petitions for certiorari. St. Luke Church v. Smith, 74 Md.App. 353, 537 A.2d 1196 Peremptory Strikes Maryland Rule 2-512(h) provides: Each party is permitted four peremptory challenges plus one peremptory ......
  • Globe Sec. Systems Co. v. Sterling, No. 1037
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • September 1, 1988
    ...A.2d 601 (1983). Like Kapiloff, both Harnish and Sherrard involved public figures. St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church, Inc. v. Smith, 74 Md.App. 353, 371-74, 537 A.2d 1196 (1988), cert. granted, 313 Md. 9, 542 A.2d 845 (1988), held that a conditional privilege is defeated by a private per......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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