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State Supreme Judge Dismisses Rabbis ‘Fuehrer’ Lawsuit

court hammer2.jpgThe San Fransisco Chronicle reports: The state Supreme Court ordered dismissal Monday of a libel suit by a San Francisco rabbi over statements by another Jewish community leader who said that the rabbi was not an honorable man and that children in his presence “would stand at attention as if the Fuehrer were walking in.”

The 6-1 ruling did not address the merits of the lawsuit by Pinchas Lipner, founder of the Hebrew Academy of San Francisco, but instead said it was filed many years too late. The fact that the disparaging statements were buried in a university archive, and apparently weren’t known to Lipner for almost a decade, didn’t excuse the rabbi from California’s one-year deadline for libel suits, the court said.

Lipner, who started the Hebrew Academy in 1969 as an Orthodox Jewish day school and serves as its dean, filed the $10 million suit in 2002 after learning of remarks by Richard Goldman, former president of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, who commented for a UC Berkeley oral history project. (The comments were made in 1993.)

The suit quoted Goldman as saying Lipner had done little for the community, was self-serving and not an honorable man, and that on a couple of occasions at the academy, “When he would walk into the room, the children would stand at attention as if it were the Fuehrer walking in.”

Lipner said Goldman was comparing him to Adolf Hitler and said his comments had hurt the rabbi’s reputation and the school’s fundraising.

A Superior Court judge dismissed the suit, citing the state’s one-year statute of limitations for libel suits, but an appellate court reinstated the case, saying the transcript was in such an obscure place that the usual deadline shouldn’t apply and that Lipner was entitled to sue within a year of the time he learned about the comments. The state’s high court disagreed Monday.

(The ruling is available for download by entering the following into your browser:

7 Responses

  1. I kind of side with the Supreme Court on this one.
    Libel damages, to my thought, are being claimed based upon the fact that the remarks or transcript thereof was public enough to cause him damages.

    If that be the case, why 9 years until the onset of the lawsuit? What excuse is there for getting around the statute of limitations.

    The very argument that the transcript was in such an obscure place that he was unaware of it, the very fact that it did not get noticed by the plaintiff for so NINE years, in itself should show a weakness in the case of damages. The obscurity of makes it hard to substantiate the plaintiff’s claim it was public enough to damage him, when he admits it was too obscure for him to see it himself.

    Remember, not every bad thing someone says about another is libel. Am I right to think there needs to be substantiated damages?

  2. The reason for getting around the statute of limitations is called the “discovery rule,” which basically says that you can sue within one year of finding out about the offense. This makes a lot of sense, since you can’t very well sue if you don’t know about the avla.

    I am not admitted in CA, but my understanding is that there is no need to show actual damages in CA. Your feelings about a weakness in the damage claim are understandable, but, if I am correct, not material in a court of law.

    The Jewish community in SF is virulently anti-frum, and it would have served them right to get a black eye for making such outrageous comments. They support all sorts of naarishkeit that you would not believe, but to the one frum k-12 school they give only what they are forced to…

  3. I hear ya. Thank you for clarifying. I was curious on what they based such a late suit on to begin with. My thoughts were, if I don’t learn about an old remark someone made for 8 years, I am not going to claim damaged by it. But if as you say actual damages need not be shown, that explains it.

    The discovery rule works in a slightly different way here in FL, like medical mal, where here in FL we have 2 years from the time the patient “Should have known about it.” (New diagnosis, diagnosis of new symptoms that attributes to original treatment, etc.,) So, I assumed that the “Should have known” was enough, and not actually finding out.

    Does this mean that in CA one can sue for libel many years after the fact, simply because someone goes through old newspapers in his old age and discovers someone said something many years ago that he never knew about?

  4. I believe that the whole point of the opinion is that regardless of how many copies of an article (or book) are printed, the discovery rule does not apply to libel suits. In other words, the SOL always starts to run at the time of publication, not from when you discovered the libel.

    There is established CA case law that says that the discovery rule does not apply to libel cases, but that rule was said in the context of a widely circulated book. It makes sense to say that you should have known about the libel if it was published in a book that is a major bestseller. The question here was that since the publication was so obscure, would the discovery rule apply. They said it does not.

    We should all daven for the continued hatzlocha of Rabbi Lipner and the Hebrew Academy. The existence of a frum Torah Umesorah school in an environment such as San Francisco is a ness, and Rabbi Lipner has to withstand all sorts of adversity on a daily basis to keep it going.

  5. unfortunately you do not know the history or acts that both precede and are current. I would have asked why did he not go to a bet din and kept it private so in his own words “his reputation regarding reputation and fund raising” could have been kept intact. in stead he chose lawsuit- and this is not new to him. This was done before to get funding yearly from the Federation. I would have hoped that with the opportunity he would set an example of what a man of Torah is like and enfranchise not disenfranchise those who could help Torah.
    Also there are now two Modern Orthodox Day schools serving Jewish American students here- The funding he got was targeted for immigrant Russian non- religious students. I do not know of more than one or two examples of where the education changed the individual or the family.
    All i can say is a man of Torah would have found a Bet Din and would have followed the prescribed method lay ed out for us “if there were damages”-

    What this has led to is a measure of antisemitic statements from Jewish educators who use the term Ultra Orthodox referring in general to the nature of this gentleman instead of referring to a GAon or one who whose learning leaves us with deep respect.
    So I am now finding that I have to re-educate the Board of Jewish Education on what a Orthodox Jew is and is not. Kallal Israel is the bottom line- there are not enough of us.
    By the way to update you, we have a Kollel of 14 families here, a major investment by YU.
    The AIDS rate is the same in this city as in NY. The divorce rate is no higher here than in NY so stop fear mongering about this city and consider moving your family out here where making a minyan counts

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