Ex-police officer awarded $100,000

Religious bias ruled against Burgettstown

Friday, March 28, 2008 By Jonathan D. Silver, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A federal jury yesterday deliberated for two hours before finding that Burgettstown discriminated against a former part-time police officer by firing him over his religion and his complaints about his treatment.

Terryn Risk, 54, of Weirton, W.Va., was awarded $100,000 by the jury of four men and four women.

"He's thrilled," attorney Samuel J. Cordes said after the verdict. "He's one of those clients where it never was about money. It's about the principle of the thing."

Mr. Cordes said he plans to ask for his client's reinstatement, back pay of around $25,000 and about $200,000 in attorney's fees.

"Some of what happened here is the result of the atmosphere at that place," Mr. Cordes said. "I'm hoping that the borough will take this verdict to heart and understand that it can't do those kind of things."

Teresa O. Sirianni, the attorney for Burgettstown, declined comment.

Mr. Risk worked as a part-time police officer from October 2002 to June 2005 and is now driving a school bus. He sued in August 2005.

While a police officer, he wore a small cross pinned to his lapel and asked not to be scheduled for Sunday shifts that conflicted with his church services.

Mr. Risk claimed that police Chief George Roberts ordered him not to wear his pin even though there was no written policy forbidding him to do so. He also said Chief Roberts told other people that Mr. Risk would be part of any cutbacks because the church interfered with his job.

The borough argued that Mr. Risk was simply one of many officers laid off when Burgettstown restructured its police department as a way to save money during a fiscal crunch.

"It was not a conspiracy. It was about fixing the financial problems at the borough," Ms. Sirianni said yesterday in her closing argument.

Mr. Cordes, however, attributed the motivation to purely discriminatory reasons -- an argument that the jury believed.

"The evidence in this case was overwhelming," Mr. Cordes said.