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Judge Denies Yeshiva University’s Motion to Dismiss Child Sex-Abuse Claims, Orders Parties to Proceed

Yeshiva University May be Forced to Hand over Thousands of Pages of Investigation Documents, Following 11-Year Fight for Their Release

(NEW YORK, April 3, 2024) – A New York state court judge yesterday filed a decision giving the green light to a high-profile civil lawsuit against Yeshiva University, allowing 48 former university students suing the school for sexual abuse to proceed with their case.

Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Alexander M. Tisch, in a ruling filed April 2, denied Yeshiva University’s motion to dismiss nearly in total and ordered that the parties “shall proceed with discovery.” 

The University had argued that a federal court in 2013 and 2015 twice dismissed the case involving 33 prior plaintiffs in favor of the university on the grounds of expired statutes of limitation.  It also challenged the constitutionality of New York’s 2019 Child Victims Act that extended the statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims. The university argued that the new state law does not override the school’s federally protected “vested right” in the prior dismissals.

Plaintiffs disagreed and argued that the prior judgments did not confer “vested rights” on Yeshiva University such that the New York State Legislature was powerless to create a new remedy for victims to vindicate their own long-held rights to seek redress for child sexual abuse. In other words, the abuse victims, while temporarily deprived of an avenue through which to seek justice in a civil action, never lost their rights to do so. And the judge agreed.

At the center of the case are 48 sex abuse victims, who allege that when they attended the private, Yeshiva University High School for Boys (YUHS) over many years, Yeshiva University High School principal Rabbi George Finkelstein and others sexually abused them beginning in 1955 through 1986. Judge Tisch noted, “Plaintiffs allege that while students at YUHS they were sexually abused by individuals that were employees or agents of defendants including; George Finkelstein . . ., Macy Gordon . . ., Richard Andron . . ., Pesach Kremen . . ., Sheldon Chanales . . ., and Neal Harris . …” Plaintiffs allege the school received more than 20 complaints from parents and students about the alleged abuse but did nothing to protect them.

“This is a resounding win for the abuse survivors in this case,” said Leander James, a national sexual abuse attorney who, along with his co-counsel Jesse Capell, represents lead plaintiff Mordechai Twersky. James and Capell represent two of the 48 plaintiffs. “I extend my immense gratitude to my co-counsel, Jesse Capell and to our colleague, attorney Kevin Mulhearn, who represents the remaining plaintiffs; Kevin has pursued this cause tirelessly for 11 years, first in federal court and now in state court.”

“The three of us and our clients make a formidable team,” added Capell. “I’m proud that we joined forces to defeat this potentially fatal motion and look forward to uncovering what Yeshiva University knew and when it knew it.”

The judge’s ruling may force Yeshiva University to release some 145 interviews from a 2013 investigative report into past sexual abuse of students at the school, conducted by New York City law firm Sullivan & Cromwell and commissioned by the school itself. For years, plaintiffs have sought information and full interviews. Sullivan & Cromwell issued a summary report, finding:

The Investigative Team has concluded that multiple incidents of varying types of sexual and physical abuse took place at YUHSB [Yeshiva University High School for Boys] during the relevant time period. This conduct was carried out by a number of individuals in positions of authority at the High Schools at various times throughout the period covered by the Investigation, including, in certain instances, after members of the administration had been made aware of such conduct. In addition, the Investigative Team found that, during the relevant time period, sexual and physical abuse took place at other schools comprising the University as well.

See the summary report here: Sullivan & Cromwell report

“We want the full report,” said Mordechai Twersky, lead plaintiff. “We want the witness interviews. We want the documents they uncovered. We want the truth.”

Despite some 6,300 hours devoted to the investigation into past sexual abuse of students by faculty, Yeshiva University upon initial release of the report issued a four-paragraph summary of “findings” stating that multiple incidents of “varying types of sexual and physical abuse took place …during the relevant time period … including, in some instances, after members of the administration had been made aware of such conduct.” The sparse details prompted victims’ rights attorney Marci Hamilton to state at the time, “This is little more than a continuation of the cover-up that apparently already occurred.” See Prof. Hamilton’s full commentary, click link, here: Yeshiva University: Disappointing report on child sex abuse

Last month, victims’ attorneys, in the case, known as Mordechai Twersky et al v. Yeshiva University et al, implored the court in oral argument to deny the motion to dismiss and lift a temporary “stay” prohibiting release of information by the school. Victims argued that the information must be disclosed as part of the normal exchange of information in a civil lawsuit, while Yeshiva University claimed the information should be off-limits because a federal court case, which included some prior claims, previously was dismissed.

Specifically, victims’ attorneys sought the identity of individuals at Yeshiva University who had knowledge of sexual abuse, individuals who received reports of sexual abuse, individuals identified as perpetrators, along with names of administrators made aware of abuse, and individual school officials and administrators who failed to protect students or did not respond to abuse allegations.

For abuse survivor and lead plaintiff Mordechai Twersky, this case has become a four-decade quest for personal justice. Twersky alleges in the lawsuit that he was sexually abused by principal Finkelstein in 1980 — and despite letting school officials know, they kept the rabbi at the school and even gave him the “Educator of the Year” award in 1985. In 1995, Finkelstein was given the Heritage Award while the school had quietly fired him, court papers say. In the wake of his abuse, Twersky suffered severe depression, but continued his legal fight to seek reforms at his former school.

“Yeshiva University prides itself on values of moral integrity, concern, and service to others, yet we believe it has treated us victims horribly and has even suggested that by speaking out we’re harming the faith,” Twersky said. “They need to do better. They need to treat victims assaulted on their campus as victims and not enemies.”

“We believe the YU Community has abandoned us,” added one of the John Does, a prominent member of the Orthodox Jewish community who filed anonymously. “We believe they have deflected and minimized Finkelstein’s abuse as ‘just wrestling,’ when we say Finkelstein pinned students down and rubbed his penis on them to satisfy himself.” The John Doe noted the allegations against Gordon include, “Gordon was vicious and sadistic in his abuse. On one occasion, in 1980, Gordon sprayed a young boy’s genital area with Chloraseptic and then violently shoved a toothbrush (with toothpaste) up the boy’s rectum.”

The Twersky case has become a closely watched battle in legal circles. Victims say that despite nationwide reforms to state statutes, with religious and secular institutions forced to change, the orthodox community remains locked in the past, continuing to obstruct release of information about sexual predators – putting children at risk and further damaging survivors.

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Case information: #950111/2019, Mordechai Twersky vs. Yeshiva University, assigned to Hon. Alexander M. Tisch, Supreme Court of The State of New York, County of New York Link to: Court documents

Plaintiffs’ attorneys of the Mordechai Twersky Team:

Leander Laurel “Lee” James, IV has a nationwide practice focused on justice for individuals against corporate and other large entities. James has helped secure justice on behalf of thousands of injured parties. James is a founding shareholder of James Vernon and Weeks, P.A., with offices in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and New York.

Jesse D. Capell

Jesse D. Capell has litigated complex and high-profile cases representing large institutions, small businesses, and individuals. Capell has served as a partner at a private law firm, an in-house counsel at a multi-billion-dollar healthcare corporation and has successfully tried multiple complex matters to verdict.

Key Points From Judge’s Ruling in re Mordechai Twersky et al v. Yeshiva University et al:

• Constitutional Challenge Rejected: The court dismissed defendants’ argument that New York state’s Child Victims Act (CVA) violates the United States and New York State Constitutions, citing previous rulings upholding the constitutionality of the CVA’s claim-revival provision.

• Negligent Supervision and Retention Claims: The court denied dismissal of claims related to negligent supervision and retention, stating that the complaint adequately alleged defendants knew or should have known of the abusers’ propensity for abuse, and the duty extends beyond the school premises.

Negligent Failure to Provide a Safe Environment: The court declined to dismiss the claim of negligent failure to provide a safe environment, stating that schools have a duty to adequately supervise students, and the duty extends to situations where students are under the school’s authority.

Dismissal of Claims Against Trustees: The court granted the motion to dismiss claims against the Yeshiva University and Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy trustees, citing qualified immunity conferred upon the trustees under applicable law.

• Claim Against Robert Hirt: The court denied dismissal of the claim against Robert Hirt, a former vice president of Yeshiva University’s rabbinical seminary, stating that discovery is needed to determine “what he knew and when,” as the facts necessary to oppose the motion are within the sole possession of the defendants.

•  Direction for Further Proceedings: The court directed the parties to proceed with discovery, the normal exchange of information in a civil case, and submit a compliance conference order within 20 days from the date the judge’s ruling was filed with the court.