The strange case of the dueling Penny Pinchers

Charges fly between church and consignment store manager
Apr 25, 2018

A long-simmering dispute between the First Congregational Church of Marion and the woman who managed a consignment shop in the church's basement has boiled over into a lawsuit and countersuit.

In papers filed in Plymouth Superior Court in January, the church charges that Winifred Sylvia and the Penny Pinchers Exchange that she now operates at 3 Wells Road took confidential information, funds, workers and the establishment’s name when she parted ways with the church and its Penny Pinchers Exchange two years ago.

Sylvia has filed a counterclaim seeking damages and court costs.

Her contention is that Penny Pinchers was an independent — although unincorporated — business, operating as a tenant of the church. Sylvia claims that, beginning in spring of 2016, church management attempted to take over the business, locked the consignment store operators out of the shop, took merchandise, and blocked access to the business's bank account.

No court date has been set. And, although partisans have been verbally slugging it out on social media, neither side is willing to talk at length to reporters.

"Alternative facts" might be a cliche of America in 2018, but the cliche seems to fit the battle of the Penny Pinchers.

At the heart of the matter is exactly what Penny Pinchers Exchange was while operating out of the church building.

Both sides agree that the shop was established around 1977.

The church maintains that Penny Pinchers Exchange was a church project, run by church members with proceeds benefiting the church.

The church filing describes Sylvia, who was paid a salary to manage the Exchange, as a church employee. The court filing goes on to say that, when Sylvia and church officials parted ways in 2016, she stole confidential information—the names of thrift store customers and consignment documents—in order to create a "competing business."

In her counterclaim, Sylvia maintains that Penny Pinchers was always an independent operation.

Her court filings claim: "On or around May 15, 1978, said unincorporated organization adopted bylaws which stated...'the management of Penny Pinchers Exchange shall be vested in the group of people who voluntarily oversee its operation. This organization is....under the control of no other body or group.' This organization had its own board of directors, manager, secretary and treasurer from 1978 onward."

Sylvia denies that she was ever an employee of the First Congregational Church. She says the church had no input when she was hired as Penny Pinchers' manager by the shop's board of directors.

Her court filings describe the consignment shop as running its finances independent from the church through one or more accounts at Eastern Bank. She charges  church officials with illegally removing her name from the business’ accounts.

Left unclear by both sides' refusal to discuss the case with reporters is how church officials could have removed Sylvia's name from an account they did not control.

Last year, church administrators served Sylvia with an order to cease and desist use of the Penny Pinchers Exchange business name, an order Sylvia has defied.

Sylvia states in her filing that, because Penny Pinchers Exchange was never under the control of the church, the church has no claim to the business's name, and that she will continue to use it.

Although the word "business" is used repeatedly in both sides' court filings, there is one point on which the church and Sylvia agree: Penny Pinchers Exchange is not a for-profit business. Proceeds from the church basement operation benefited church causes. According to Charity Navigator, Sylvia obtained nonprofit status for her Wells Road operation from the Internal Revenue Service in late 2016.