Woman Barred from Suing After Five-Year Sexual Relationship

A New York state law prevented the woman from suing the synagogue leader.

Church Law & Tax Report

Woman Barred from Suing After Five-Year Sexual Relationship

A New York state law prevented the woman from suing the synagogue leader.

Key Point 4-11.1. Clergy who engage in sexual contact with an adult or minor are subject to civil liability on the basis of several legal theories. They also are subject to criminal liability.

Key Point 4-11.02. Clergy who are sued for sexual misconduct may be able to assert one or more defenses.

A New York court ruled that a state law abolishing any remedy for alienation of affections and seduction barred a woman from suing a spiritual leader and counselor for damages she allegedly suffered as a result of a five-year sexual relationship. The founder and spiritual leader of a Jewish synagogue (the “defendant”) held himself out as a counselor and advisor with an expertise in women’s issues. A woman (the “plaintiff”) began attending services at the synagogue. The defendant advised her with respect to her personal, legal and financial problems, and represented that he would assist her in finding a husband so she would be able to marry and have children as she wished. The two eventually began a sexual relationship that lasted for five years.

The plaintiff alleged that she was induced by defendant to engage in this physical relationship “as part of a course of sexual therapy which he represented would lead to her achieving her goals of marriage and children.” He told her she was “closed to the possibility of finding a husband” and “would never find a husband in her current state.” He advised her “to permit him to have sexual intercourse with her so that her ‘life will open up and men will come’ to her.” He told her he “was as close to God as anyone could get,” and engaging in sexual relations with him would be her “only hope.” The relationship did not lead to the outcome the plaintiff desired. Rather, she claimed, the defendant “physically and emotionally abused [her] for his own sexual pleasure and gratification,” and warned that if she told anyone about their sexual relationship he “would have her placed in a straight jacket,” “have her put in the penitentiary,” and “would turn the community against her.”

The plaintiff sued the defendant for breach of fiduciary duty. Specifically, the plaintiff claimed that since the defendant held himself out as a counselor with an expertise in women’s issues, he “owed a fiduciary duty to [her] and a duty not to abuse their relationship of trust and confidence.” She also sued the defendant for emotional distress and her synagogue for negligent retention of the defendant. The court rejected the breach of fiduciary duty claim for two reasons.

First, a state law abolished all claims for alienation of affections and seduction and defined seduction as “any conduct on the part of a man, without the use of force, in wrongfully inducing a woman to surrender to his sexual desires.” The plaintiff’s claims “fall squarely within [this statute] whether couched as a claim for breach of fiduciary duty or intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

Second, the court noted that “the allegations that the defendant held himself out as a counselor and advisor with an expertise in women’s issues are merely general allegations; the mere giving of advice that is in turn accepted is not sufficient to create a fiduciary relationship …. While plaintiff asserts that defendant occupied a position as fiduciary as [her] counselor, advisor and therapist, there is no claim that he held himself out to be a professional counselor, that the parties had a professional relationship, that he was trained to be a therapist in any particular specialty or even that he was counseling her in a specific area. On the contrary, she claims that he counseled her with respect to her personal, legal and financial problems. That plaintiff may have succumbed to defendant’s persuasive power and may have been exploited by him for his own sexual gratification is insufficient to impose a legal duty on him, entitling plaintiff to the recovery of damages. She must allege more than her subjective belief in defendant’s rectitude and honesty.”

The court also dismissed the plaintiff’s claim of emotional distress on the ground that it was barred by the state law abolishing any recovery for alienation of affections or seduction. Marmelstein v. Kehillat New Hempstead, 841 N.Y.S.2d 493 (N.Y.A.D. 2007).

This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, July/August 2008.

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