Former Teacher’s Defamation Claim Dismissed Due To Ministerial Exception

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Apr 28, 2023

Rosenbaum Yeshiva of New Jersey (RYNJ) is an Orthodox Jewish school. One defining feature of Orthodox Judaism is a commitment to specific principles of behavior and conduct, such as restrictions on physical contact between unrelated people of different genders.

In 1988, Shlomo Hyman was hired as a Judaic studies teacher at RYNJ. His role as a rebbe (a rabbi who is an elementary school teacher) and Judaic studies teacher reflected his background and training as a rabbi. Hyman used titles of rabbi and rebbe and exclusively taught Judaic studies classes during his employment at RYNJ. Through his position, Hyman received an annual parsonage allowance from RYNJ. Parsonage is a tax benefit for rabbis and other religious figures that allows them to accept a portion of their salaries in the form of payment for their living expenses.

Hyman signed a new employment agreement each year, in which he agreed to abide by certain policies and standards of conduct for teachers that embodied the Orthodox Jewish religious standards and rules. Hyman also acknowledged receipt and understanding of the Staff Handbook, which set out standards of conduct for RYNJ teachers. The handbook said that teachers, in particular those who teach Orthodox Jewish religious law and practices, were expected to conform to the school’s religious principles, such as refraining from touching students of the opposite gender that are in the third grade or older.

In February 2019, RYNJ learned of allegations of inappropriate interactions between Hyman and his former female students. After these allegations, Hyman was placed on administrative leave and the Yeshiva Board of Directors (Board) began an investigation into the allegations, hiring an outside law firm to conduct the investigation.

In May 2019, the law firm presented its findings to the Board and Head of School. The findings were that Hyman intentionally touched fifth and sixth-grade female students, including massaging girls’ shoulders, touching girls on clothed parts of the body that he should not have touched, placing stickers on or near their chests, and creating classroom games that caused him to touch them.  RYNJ terminated Hyman’s employment for violating the Orthodox Jewish standards of conduct set out in the Staff Handbook.

The Head of the School informed the community via email that, following an independent investigation, Hyman was terminated for conduct that was unacceptable and inconsistent with how a rebbe should interact with students. The email was spread through the entire school community and similar Jewish communities. Hyman’s picture appeared on Jewish websites and the allegations were disseminated by bloggers. Hyman alleged that he was branded as a pedophile among the Jewish community, impacting the possibility of him obtaining future employment in education.

In November 2019, Hyman sued RYNJ alleging a number of claims, including breach of contract, age discrimination, and defamation. The complaint said RYNJ conducted a “sham investigation” into “baseless allegations.” Based on the sham investigation, he was wrongfully terminated, and the malicious email to the school community falsely branded him as a pedophile in order to reduce the school’s payroll and to rebuild RYNJ’s image and reputation that the school does not take a casual view of pedophilia.

RYNJ moved to dismiss the complaint due to the ministerial exception. During the hearing, Hyman admitted he was a minister within the ministerial exception and agreed to dismiss the age discrimination claim. The judge granted RYNJ’s motion and dismissed the entire case, finding that since Hyman admitted to being a minister and the claims involved RYNJ’s employment decision, the judge could not allow the suit to continue under the First Amendment.  Hyman appealed.

On appeal, Hyman argued that the ministerial exception only shields against employment discrimination claims, and does not apply to his defamation claims. He argued that the trial court’s logic would mean that a minister could never bring an action against their employer for any tort because his status as a minister alone would preclude the tort claim. Further, Hyman was no longer an employee of RYNJ when the school emailed the letter, so he argued that it was not an employment claim.

RYNJ argued that the ministerial exception applies because Hyman is a minister and the defamation claims arise out of the school’s decision to terminate his employment as a religious studies teacher. The defamatory statement was RYNJ’s explanation of its employment decision. Ruling on the defamation claim would necessarily require a review of RYNJ’s termination decision, which is what the ministerial exception prohibits. Further, the letter was drafted in consultation with religious authorities, so a secular court would have to call into question a religious judgment regarding employment. RYNJ argued that the fact that Hyman was no longer an employee does not matter because a judge would still have to second guess RYNJ’s decision to terminate a religious teacher.

The Court noted that in New Jersey there is no published case directly addressing whether the ministerial exception applies to cases beyond employment discrimination cases. The Court considered other jurisdictions for guidance, including a California Appeals Court case. In California, the Court ruled that the ministerial exception applied to tort claims where the tortious acts and statements are part and parcel of the termination. The California case included claims of defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress after a church terminated an employee from his position as worship director upon discovering he was a homosexual. After the worship director was terminated, the senior pastor told the congregation that the church fired the worship director because he had admitted to acts the church considered to be a sin. The California Appeals Court upheld the decision to dismiss the entire case, including the defamation claims, because the statements related to the hiring, firing, and discipline or administration of clergy. The California Appeals Court also rejected the argument that the ministerial exception has no application to statements that occur after termination if they were part of the process of termination.

Here, the Court of Appeals found the other jurisdictions’ reasoning persuasive and concluded that the ministerial exception applied to bar tort claims provided that, (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. In this case, Hyman conceded the fact that he was a minister, and his defamation claims were part and parcel and connected to RYNJ’s decision to terminate him. The Court of Appeals dismissed the case.

Hyman v. Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey (2023) 289 A.3d 826.

Note: This case is a reminder that the ministerial exception in California may extend to claims that are part and parcel of employment termination decisions, giving religious schools more deference in making those decisions.

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