Thursday, February 09, 2023

Ministerial Exception Doctrine Requires Dismissal of Jewish Teacher's Defamation Suit

In Hyman v. Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, (NJ Super., Feb. 8, 2023), a New Jersey state appellate court held that the ministerial exception doctrine required dismissal of a defamation suit brought by a rabbi who was an elementary school Judaic studies teacher at an Orthodox Jewish school. An investigation by an outside law firm employed by the school concluded that the rabbi had inappropriately touched 5th and 6th grade female students in his classes. The school terminated the rabbi's employment and, after consulting halachic authorities, e-mailed a letter to school parents informing them that the rabbi was terminated because his conduct violated the Orthodox Jewish standards of conduct set out in the school's Staff Handbook. According to the court:

The letter was spread throughout the entire school community and similar Jewish communities. Additionally, plaintiff's picture appeared on Jewish websites such as "Frums Follies" and "Lost Messiah," and the allegations were disseminated by bloggers. As a result, plaintiff was allegedly branded as a pedophile among the Jewish community, which affected any possibility of him obtaining future employment in education.

In affirming the dismissal of the rabbi's defamation suit, the court concluded that the ministerial exception doctrine applies to more than just employment discrimination lawsuits.  It said in part:

We ... conclude that the ministerial exception applies to bar tort claims, provided (1) the injured party is a minister formerly employed by a religious institution and (2) the claims are related to the religious institution's employment decision.