Court Upholds Religious, Union Discrimination Jury Verdict In Favor Of Officer

Rex Shrum was employed by the City of Coweta, Oklahoma as a police officer. Shrum brought a lawsuit against the City alleging that he had been constructively discharged in violation of his First Amendment “right to associate” by engaging in union activities and his First Amendment right to freely exercise his religion. On February 22, 2007, a jury rendered verdicts in favor of Shrum and found that the Police Chief changed Shrum’s “work schedule knowing it would interfere with Shrum’s religious commitment.” The jury also specifically found that the Chief took adverse action against Shrum for engaging in union activities. The jury awarded Shrum damages against the City and the Chief of approximately $450,000.

The City challenged the jury’s award, arguing that no reasonable jury could conclude that Shrum was constructively discharged and that the evidence conclusively established that Shrum had voluntarily resigned his employment. The federal trial court that heard the case was not convinced by the City’s arguments.

The Court commented that “the evidence at trial supports a finding that a reasonable person in Shrum’s position would have felt compelled to resign under the circumstances Shrum found himself. Shrum’s obligations as a pastor was known by the Chief and the City Manager. The Chief was aware the change in Shrum’s work schedule conflicted with his pastoral duties on Sunday. Yet, the Chief would not consider an accommodation suggested by Shrum or others to alleviate the conflict. Under these circumstances, it is entirely reasonable for a jury to conclude that Shrum was forced to choose between exercising his religious rights or remaining employed with the City. Faced with this conflict, a reasonable person would certainly have believed the situation to be so intolerable that he had no choice but to resign.”

Apart from reducing a portion of the jury’s award to correctly account for Shrum’s lost pension benefits, the Court upheld the jury’s verdict.

Shrum v. City of Coweta, 2008 WL 920343 (E.D.Okla. 2008).

This article appears in the July 2008 issue