(Sept. 17) – Crossroads Christian Church in Grand Prairie must honor its promise of retirement benefits to senior pastors and staff who helped build the congregation into a 7,000-member mega-church, a Fort Worth jury ruled last week.
After a heated three-day trial in Tarrant County District Court, an 11-person jury slapped Crossroads with a $3.7 million judgment after it found that church leaders violated a legally binding commitment it made to its former executive pastor of 20 years, Mel Dietz, and his wife, Vicki Dietz, who worked as an executive assistant to its senior pastor for nearly two decades.
Andrew Stubblefield, the lead trial lawyer for Crossroads, which is a non-denominational church, said his clients were completely surprised that the Dietzes sued them at all.
“Crossroads remains unfailingly committed to its mission, its ministry, and its members,” Stubblefield, a lawyer in the Dallas office of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, said in a statement released to The Texas Lawbook. “Once the verdict is finalized, the church will weigh its options for further action.”
Lawyers for the Dietzes see the facts differently.
“What Crossroads did to Mel and Vicki was flat wrong,” attorney Keith Clouse, who represents the Dietzes, told The Texas Lawbook in an interview. “The church had an employment contract with my clients and it has violated the terms of that contract.”
According to Clouse, Crossroads hired Mel Dietz in 1995 to be its executive pastor handling all of the church’s administrative needs. At the time, the church was called Arlington Christian. Dietz was involved in commercial and real estate construction in Florida before yielding to the call for the ministry.
Dietz led Crossroads expansion efforts, including a major expansion in 2002 from its seven acres in Arlington to 146 acres in Grand Prairie, according to documents.
“Mel was insightful enough to buy the mineral rights with the new Grand Prairie property and it included nine natural gas wells that are now actively producing,” Clouse said. “The royalties from these gas wells funded the supplemental retirement plan.”
In 2011, Crossroads leaders decided to build two new buildings to expand its youth outreach programs, according to Clouse. The price tag was $30 million. However, the church raised only $8 million in pledges. To make up for the shortfall, Clouse said that church elders abandoned plans for one of the two buildings and diverted $4.7 million set aside for the supplemental retirement fund to the building fund.
The Dietzes sued Crossroads for violation of their employment contract and violation of the contract promising the supplemental lifetime retirement payments. Court records show that Dietz and the church agreed to pay 80 percent of his annual compensation, which was $238,194.32 in 2015.
Stubblefield, in a written statement, said that the church’s records “clearly indicate the board’s direction that the proper steps be taken to terminate the plan and discontinue any benefits that might otherwise have accrued.
“Mr. Dietz participated in this decision and, despite having advised the board in connection with other financial obligations, he never advised the board that benefits could still be owed in connection with the terminated supplemental plan,” Stubblefield said.
The jury deliberated for nearly two hours before agreeing with Crossroads that there was no violation of the Dietzes’ employment contract. But the jury ruled unanimously that the church had a contractual obligation to pay the Dietzes the supplemental retirement benefits promised.
“Crossroads is extremely pleased that the jury found no merit in the overwhelming majority of the plaintiffs’ claims,” Stubblefield said. “Specifically, the jury voted unanimously to reject claims for breach of an alleged employment contract, fraud, negligent misrepresentation, and promissory estoppel.”
The panel awarded $3.7 million in actual damages. The Dietzes now live in East Texas on a small farm and raise beef cattle, according to Clouse.
“I feel confident that this jury verdict will be upheld,” Clouse said.