A man who alleged he was discriminated against because he’s Episcopalian and was compelled to resign from his “dream job” at a prestigious funeral home in Houston recently failed to convince a Harris County jury that he was wronged.
William Coleman was working as a director at a funeral home in Waco in 2014 when what he described as a “one-in-a-lifetime opportunity” came his way: an offer to become a funeral director at Geo. H. Lewis & Sons Funeral Directors. The company is a subsidiary of the publicly traded, Houston-based Service Corporation International and is known for offering top-tier funeral services for some of the city’s wealthiest families, including President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush.
Coleman said he was recruited by Geo. H. Lewis’ then-president and CEO, John Onstott, who promised him a $5,000 raise and said a promotion to a supervisory position would soon follow should he join the company.
So he signed a contract and moved to Houston.
“But Coleman’s job was not the dream he’d expected,” according to the lawsuit. “Within his first few months, he started realizing he was working for a discriminating bully: John Onstott. This nightmare was first revealed in October 2014 — when Coleman discovered that John Onstott loathes Coleman’s Episcopalian religion.”
When Carter Crow, the global head of Norton Rose Fulbright’s labor and employment practice, was hired to defend against Coleman’s claims, he had to study up.
“It’s very rare, I’ve never seen a case like this in my experience,” he said. “I had to do research to determine if it was even potentially viable because I hadn’t seen one like this.”
“But I think that we are seeing more claims of religious discrimination, especially post-covid, and it won’t surprise me if we ultimately see more claims like this.”
Peter Costea, who represents Coleman, was out of the country Tuesday and unable to comment.
The lawsuit was filed in June 2017 and alleged breach of contract, promissory estoppel, violations of the Texas Labor Code via discrimination, harassment and the creation of a hostile work environment, negligent training and supervision and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
In a second amended petition filed in November 2018, Coleman dropped the negligent training and emotional distress claims.
Coleman conceded in his lawsuit that the claim was somewhat novel.
“To be sure, hating Episcopalians is an unusual prejudice,” he wrote. “But what Coleman didn’t discover until later is that Onstott hates Episcopalians because he was released from their religion. Onstott was an ordained Episcopalian priest after completing seminary. He was later reprimanded by the Episcopal Church, however, and ultimately ousted for engaging in unbecoming conduct.”
Onstott was not named as a defendant in this lawsuit and according to a LinkedIn page that appears to be his, he is no longer with Geo. H. Lewis.
Coleman alleged Onstott’s continuing verbal abuse — including repeated comments that “All Episcopalians are cheap!” and “Episcopalians all are a bunch of stuck up sons of bitches!” — created a hostile work environment.
“On several occasions, he literally referred to the Episcopalian Church as a ‘Godforsaken church,’” Coleman alleged. “He even did so while discussing St. Martin’s and the anticipated funeral of a heroic Episcopalian who served as President of the United States: ‘When President Bush dies, that will be the last time I have to go to that Godforsaken church!’… Onstott didn’t merely broadcast these sentiments generally. He targeted them at Coleman, with the aim of hurting and humiliating Coleman — the only Episcopalian at Geo. H. Lewis.”
In October 2014 Coleman’s uncle died and in February 2015 his aunt died, both of whom were Episcopalian, according to the lawsuit. Coleman alleged Onstott made comments about “cheap Episcopalians” after the deaths of each of his relatives and learning that a different funeral services company would be handling their arrangements.
Subsequent meetings with human resources and upper management, Coleman alleged, did not resolve the issues. In retaliation for reporting the conduct, Coleman alleged his pay was cut and he was demoted.
In November 2015, he resigned.
Crow told the jury during opening statements and closing arguments that the case was simple: Coleman voluntarily took a risk in moving to Houston, soon realized the workplace was more competitive than anticipated and that moving up in management wouldn’t be easy.
“He decided to resign for his own reasons,” Crow said, noting he left family behind in Waco. “It was not the result of any discrimination or harassment, and he moved back home.”
Key evidence in the case came from Coleman’s own resignation letter, Crow said, which expressed appreciation for the opportunity to work at Geo. H. Lewis and was “inconsistent with his claims.”
The jury of 12 heard from eight witnesses over four days of trial and deliberated for about an hour before clearing Geo. H. Lewis of any wrongdoing in an 11-1 verdict Feb. 24.
“I think the jury didn’t think it was about religion at all,” Crow said.
The case number is 2017-42127.