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UNWARRANTED DEFAMATION AND LEGAL FEES

By: Rabbi Max Sutton

Alan and Steven were equal partners in numerous real estate holdings in the Tri-State area. Unfortunately, the two began to quarrel over relatively petty issues and, as a result, they decided to terminate their partnership. The transition process was far from smooth, and a full-fledged dispute broke out regarding their respective shares in one of their properties.

Alan immediately reached out to our Bet Din and summonsed Steven to resolve the matter according to Torah law. Steven did not reply to our Bet Din, but rather filed suit against Alan in civil court. Alan reluctantly hired an attorney and prepared for the upcoming hearing. In the interim, since the two were relatively high profile personalities, the news of their recent dispute reached the media. The undue publicity somewhat tainted their otherwise fine reputations, as the allegations and news coverage were quite nasty. The exorbitant legal fees involved were only the beginning of an anticipated multi-year dispute.

Finally, family and friends of the two intervened, and successfully persuaded Steven to discontinue the legal proceedings in civil court. Instead, Steven agreed to comply with Alan’s original motion to resolve the matter in Bet Din. Immediately after the two signed a legally binding arbitration agreement in Bet Din, Alan demanded reimbursement for the unwarranted legal fees he incurred because of Steven’s lawsuit in civil court. Furthermore, Alan requested compensation for the public defamation of character caused by the lawsuit, not to mention the terrible embarrassment Steven caused by lobbing false allegations in a public forum.

Steven responded that as a resident of New York he maintained the legal right to go to civil court, and therefore should not be penalized for taking that recourse. He only agreed to come to Bet Din to appease his family and friends, and he still believed civil court would have been a viable option.

Is Alan entitled to reimbursement from Steven? How should the Bet Din rule, and why?

TORAH LAW

According to the ruling of the Shulhan Aruch it is forbidden by Torah law to adjudicate a dispute in civil court. This restriction applies even if both litigants agree to do so, since Torah law is not subject to the will of people. Those who violate this law are deemed as “severely rebellious to the teachings of Moshe Rabbenu,” and monies that were awarded in most instances need to be returned. In short, a Jew is required to adhere to the precepts of the Torah regardless of his citizenship or country of residence. A Bet Din or alternatively community arbitrators are the halachically acceptable viable options for resolving a dispute.

Nowadays, in instances in which one is in contempt of Bet Din by refusing to appear to the call of a claimant, a Bet Din will give permission to the claimant to proceed in civil court. This leniency is extended to provide the claimant with a financial recourse, since in our time a Bet Din is unable to enforce compliance. Once permission is extended by a Bet Din to proceed in civil court, the claimant is halachically entitled to collect from the defendant any additional legal costs he incurred in doing so. The additional legal fees incurred by a claimant because of the defendant’s refusal to appear in Bet Din are viewed as damages which are collectable. Additionally, if the defendant was acquitted in civil court, he is nevertheless required to appear in Bet Din to verify that his acquittal is not contrary to Torah law. Generally people who ignore a Bet Din are uninterested in returning the damages they caused to the other party, and they usually will not agree to conduct a retrial in Bet Din. Nevertheless, they are liable and accountable. Money owed is viewed as a form of theft, and needless to say, the same applies to money collected contrary to Torah law.

Although rarely does a Bet Din impose a penalty or fine on a litigant, in instances in which one publicly embarrasses another he is required to compensate the victim. This penalty is applicable for all types of verbal embarrassment and public defamation of character caused by slander. Often such slander causes irreparable damage, as the reputation and credibility of a victim is permanently tainted. When the public defamation is presented to the media, the consequences of such actions are severe. For not only is the victim tainted, but also the name of Hashem is terribly desecrated when Jews wrongfully expose each other before the nations of the world. Additionally, the reputation of the community is flawed when family and friends seek vengeance of each other in a public forum. Hence, a Bet Din will sometimes resort to punishment which can include the forfeiting of communal membership, thereby restricting access to community functions conducted in the synagogue. At times, subject to the discretion of a Bet Din, the penalty is limited to a monetary fine, providing the offender expresses deep remorse for his actions.

VERDICT Two Strikes

Our Bet Din ruled that Steven is liable for the undue legal costs that Alan sustained. Steven is also accountable for the public defamation of character he caused. As mentioned in Torah law, regardless of citizenship or country of residence, a Jew is required to resolve all matters of contention in a Bet Din or with community arbitrators. Alan reached out to our Bet Din to resolve the matter; however, Steven ignored his Torah obligation, and proceeded in civil court. By failing to comply with Torah law, Steven caused considerable damage to Alan, who incurred exorbitant fees, which Steven is required by law to reimburse.

Furthermore, and more severely, Steven flagrantly violated Torah law by reporting false allegations to the media, to take vengeance against Alan. Not only did Steven victimize Alan, he is guilty of desecrating Hashem’s name by exposing the alleged wrongdoings of a fellow Jew before the nations of the world. Additionally, he brought disgrace to his community, by flawing its otherwise fine reputation in a public forum. Upon Steven’s signing of a binding of arbitration, our Bet Din will proceed to judge the case fairly and justly. However, Steven will be held accountable to financially compensate Alan for his misconduct. Although Steven’s payment only satisfies his obligation to Alan, nevertheless, since he expressed sincere remorse for his behavior, our Bet Din chose not to impose any further communal penalties.