Charleston Daily Mail
Jury finds Masons not guilty in case
Thursday December 16, 2010
by Cheryl Caswell
A jury has determined that the Masons did not defame or damage a former Grand Worshipful Master when they threw him out of the organization.
Frank Haas, 53, of Wellsburg filed a lawsuit against the Grand Lodge in Charleston and two members of the Masons hierarchy - Charlie Montgomery and Charles Coleman. Those two men succeeded Haas as state leader of the men's brotherhood.
Haas claimed he suffered emotional distress after being unexpectedly expelled as a member in 2006, shortly after his term ended. He said other Mason leaders were unhappy that he attempted to change some of the group's restrictions on race, age and disabilities.
But after more than a week of testimony from both sides, the jury decided against Haas on all counts.
The case was presided over by Kanawha Circuit Court Judge Carrie Webster.
Haas is an attorney and administrative law judge.
He told the jury that the membership of the Masons approved his reforms, but there were allegations of fraud concerning that election. The changes ended up being overturned by Coleman.
Jack Tinney, the Charleston attorney who represented the Masonic lodge, Coleman and Montgomery, said he was pleased with the trial outcome.
"It was a complete defense victory," Tinney said. "The jury found in the defendants' favor on all counts. They awarded no damages."
The jury was asked to decide whether Haas suffered any damage due to his ouster and whether any of the three defendants placed him in a false light or intentionally inflicted emotional distress.
They decided no on all issues.
Tinney said, "They feel incredibly justified and pleased with the result. They certainly believed their actions were proper and within their province, and the jury verdict affirms that."
Whether the court had any business refereeing the decisions of a private organization was a point of contention in pre-trial arguments. Tinney asked the court to dismiss the case on that basis, but two judges - first former Circuit Judge Irene Berger and then Webster - decided to let the case go to a jury.
But the verdict sends a message that such organizations have much leeway in how they manage their affairs, make their rules and deal with membership issues.
"With regard to the future, it's a private organization that controls its own operating procedures," Tinney said. "I'm confident they will continue to do so."
Contact writer Cheryl Caswell at [email protected] or 348-4832.