The NY State Court of Appeals ruled that Rabbi Mordechai Tendler did not have a fiduciary duty to the woman he counseled. If Tendler were also an attorney or psychologist, the court said, this outcome could have been different.
What this means is clergy have no special relationship with or responsibility to those they counsel, as…
NY's top court rejects woman's bid to sue rabbi
June 25, 2008
ALBANY, N.Y. - New York's top court on Wednesday rejected a woman's claim that her rabbi seduced her and so breached their special fiduciary, or trust, relationship.
The Court of Appeals concluded Adina Marmelstein failed to establish the "essential elements" of a fiduciary relationship _ meaning "de facto control and dominance" _ by Orthodox Rabbi Mordechai Tendler.
The New York City woman claimed Tendler talked her into having sex for more than three years while advising her on personal, legal and financial problems at the Kehillat New Hempstead, the synagogue she attended in Rockland County.
Judge Victoria Graffeo, who wrote the unanimous decision, said Marmelstein showed only that she was deceived by Tendler, not that she was so vulnerable that she lost her capacity to make her own decisions. She wrote that the case was premised on a sexual relationship "between consenting adults."
"Allegations that give rise to only a general clergy-congregant relationship that includes aspects of counseling do not generally impose a fiduciary obligation upon a cleric," Graffeo wrote. "A congregant must set forth facts and circumstances in the complaint demonstrating that the congregant became uniquely vulnerable and incapable of self-protection regarding the matter at issue."
But the court noted that a cleric who is also a licensed professional _ such as a psychiatrist, psychologist or attorney _ could be bound by such fiduciary obligations under existing law and the secular standards of those professions. The judges also noted there is "a critical difference" between Marmelstein's case and the viability of lawsuits against clerics for having sex with children or others incapable of consent.
According to Marmelstein, she began attending services at Tendler's synagogue in 1996, two years after she began to call him to discuss personal issues. He advised her on matters including her quest to find a husband, and said her "only hope" was to have sex with him to "open her up to the world" and become more attractive to men. The affair ended in 2005. She sued.
Lower courts rejected her claims of fraud, fiduciary responsibility and infliction of emotional distress, noting a 1935 state law prohibits suing seducers for monetary damages.
The Court of Appeals acknowledged "troubling" First Amendment implications in lawsuits alleging clergy misconduct where a judge would have to decide whether a cleric's actions followed religious doctrine. Graffeo wrote that Marmelstein avoided that issue and didn't claim Tendler's counseling was guided by religious beliefs.