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The State's highest court has just agreed to hear the case of a rebbe whose hopes of obtaining future employment in education were severely affected due to a letter the yeshiva sent the parents following his termination, FAA News has confirmed.

Rosenbaum Yeshiva of New Jersey (RYNJ) hired Rabbi Shlomo Hyman in 1988 as an elementary school rebbe.

The employment agreement requires staff to abide by certain policies and standards of conduct that embody Orthodox Jewish religious standards and halacha. The Staff Handbook specifically states that teachers are 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.

Throughout his teaching career, Rabbi Hyman was frequently praised for his teaching and had not received a single written complaint of improper conduct.

In February 2019, however, RYNJ learned of allegations of inappropriate interactions between Rabbi Hyman and former female students.

Rabbi Hyman was placed on administrative leave and the Yeshiva Board of Directors began an investigation into the allegations, hiring the law firm of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP to conduct the inquiry.

After receiving Arnold & Porter's findings and consulting halachic authorities, RYNJ terminated Rabbi Hyman's employment. Along with considering whether the employment should be terminated, RYNJ also considered whether and to what extent to inform its community about the allegations.

On May 15, 2019, after consulting with halachic authorities, Rabbi Price emailed the following letter to the parents at RYNJ:

I am writing to let you know that Rabbi Shlomo Hyman, who has been on leave, will not be returning to RYNJ.

In late February, the leadership of the Yeshiva received information that warranted placing Rabbi Hyman on leave. At the same time, the Yeshiva also retained Arnold & Porter, a highly regarded national law firm to conduct an independent investigation. As a result of that process, it was determined that Rabbi Hyman's conduct had been neither acceptable nor consistent with how a rebbe in our Yeshiva should interact with students. In consultation with counsel and halachic advisors, the leadership of the Yeshiva has terminated his employment and has determined that no further action is necessary at this time. We are confident that this course of action is the right one for the school and its students.

Tomorrow, the students in Rabbi Hyman's classes will be notified that he will not be returning. I am sure that their current teachers will continue to guide them successfully through the remainder of the year. As always, our guidance staff is available to you and your children as needed. I understand that this does not address every question you may have. However, given the sensitive nature of this situation, and the advice we have received from legal and halachic authorities, this is all the information that we can share at this time.

Thank you for your patience, support and understanding.


The letter was quickly spread by bloggers throughout Jewish communities, labeling him as a pedophile. As a result, any possibility of Rabbi Hyman's obtaining future employment in education was severely affected.

In response, on November 29, 2019, Rabbi Hyman filed a lawsuit in Superior Court in Bergen County, alleging (1) breach of contract; (2) breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing; (3) age discrimination under New Jersey Law Against Discrimination; (4) defamation; (5) defamation per se; (6) defamation by innuendo; (7) injurious falsehood; (8) tortious interference with future economic opportunities; (9) negligent infliction of emotional distress; and (10) outrageous conduct causing emotional distress.

The complaint alleged RYNJ conducted a "sham investigation" into "baseless allegations." Plaintiff then alleged based on the sham investigation, RYNJ wrongfully terminated him, maliciously emailed the letter to the community, and falsely branded him as a pedophile to accomplish two goals. First, to reduce its payroll and get an older teacher off the books, and second, to rebuild RYNJ's image and reputation as an institution that does not take a casual view of pedophilia.

At a motion hearing held on February 5, 2021, Rabbi Hyman agreed to dismiss the age discrimination claim. He also admitted he was a minister within the meaning of the ministerial exception.

In response, the judge dismissed the entire case, saying:

So the fact that he is a minister demonstrates that when he's fired for the religious reason placed in the letter, that by definition, if I allowed this suit, that would mean that it would be excessive entanglement with ecclesiastical liturgy or tenets.

Rabbi Hyman appealed to the Appellate Division, arguing that the ministerial exception is a narrowly tailored principle that provides religious institutions with a shield specifically against employment discrimination claims, and does not apply to his defamation claims. 

He asserted the judge'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 claims. He argued the implausibility of the judge's ruling is further exacerbated by the fact that he was no longer an employee at RYNJ when the school emailed the letter.

The Yeshiva argued that the ministerial exception does apply because he is a minister, and his defamation claims arise out of the religious school's decision to terminate his employment as a religious studies teacher.

They asserted that the allegedly defamatory statement, that plaintiff's conduct was neither acceptable nor consistent with how a rebbe in the Yeshiva should interact with students, is defendants' explanation of its employment decision. They contended that a ruling on the defamation claims would thus necessarily require a review of RYNJ's termination decision, which is what the ministerial exception prohibits. Further, since the letter was drafted in consultation with and reflected the advice of religious authorities, they contended that a secular court could not determine whether the letter was defamatory without calling into question a religious judgment regarding employment.

The yeshiva additionally argued that the ministerial exception applies to cases beyond employment discrimination cases, but it would not apply to all tort cases as plaintiff alleges. They also asserted that the fact that plaintiff was no longer an employee does not matter because the judge would still have to improperly delve into and second guess RYNJ's decision to terminate one of its religious teachers.

In a published decision released on February 8, 2023, Judges Gooden Brown, DeAlmeida and Mitterhoff agreed with the Yeshiva Administration.

We find persuasive the reasoning of the foregoing cases and conclude that the ministerial exception applies to bar tort claims, provided (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, there is no dispute whether plaintiff is a minister since he conceded the fact. We conclude that the second requirement is also satisfied, as plaintiff's defamation claims are "part and parcel" and connected to RYNJ's decision to terminate him. In that regard, the letter stated, in pertinent part, that plaintiff would not be returning to RYNJ because an independent investigation concluded that his conduct had been neither acceptable nor consistent with how a rebbe in the Yeshiva should interact with students.

As the judge pointed out, the school made a judgment call based upon the reports given that the way the reports were made, what [plaintiff] did or did not do, which wasn't specified in the letter, that causes school officials after discussing what should or should not be done under Jewish Law, some concerns for the continued employment of [plaintiff]. 

The judge's decision reflects his consideration of the ministerial exception when he stated, "the school has the authority to figure out who's going to teach their students what the school religious tenets are, or the religious tenets of the school," and "the school had the right to fire [plaintiff] after discussion of what the correct religious approach would be to effectuate the termination." The judge correctly determined that plaintiff's status as a minister barred his defamation claims under the ministerial exception because to allow the suit to continue would force the judge to question RYNJ's employment decision and thereby violate the First Amendment.

There is no published case in New Jersey directly addressing whether the ministerial exception applies to cases beyond employment discrimination cases.

However, the United States Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, created the ministerial exception based on the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the United States Constitution, asserting that federal discrimination laws do not apply to religious organizations' selection of religious leaders.

The application of the ministerial exception to plaintiff's defamation claims would preserve the meaning of the exception, which exists to protect religious institutions right to internal governance and "to select and control who will minister to the faithful."

Similarly here, if plaintiff's defamation claims were to proceed, the court would have to inquire into RYNJ's reasons for terminating plaintiff and RYNJ's decision to email the letter. As the judge noted, "to allow the letter to be challenged so to speak in terms of its accuracy in what the basic facts were which led to the letter being published flies in the face of what the school did." In addition, awarding plaintiff the monetary relief he seeks would serve as a penalty on RYNJ for its employment decision.

We reject plaintiff's argument 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 claims. The ministerial exception requires not only for the plaintiff to be a minister, but also that the claim be related to the religious institution's employment decision. Plaintiff uses the example of a parochial school bible teacher who was hit by a school bus in the school parking lot, stating that the teacher would have no recourse against the parochial school that employed her. The ministerial exception would not apply to plaintiff's hypothetical because in that case the claim has no relation to an employment decision, and it would not require the court to infringe on a religious institution's decision to select its ministers.

We also reject plaintiff's argument that the ministerial exception does not apply because he was no longer an employee at RYNJ when the school emailed the letter. We concur with the decisions in Gunn, Sumner, and Patton, that the ministerial exception applies even after a minister is terminated provided the allegedly defamatory statements are made in relation to the religious institution's employment decision. In this case, defendants emailed the letter two days after plaintiff's termination and the letter clearly related to RYNJ's employment decision and reasons for its employment decision.

Equally unavailing is plaintiff's argument that application of the ministerial exception requires courts to consider much more than one's status as a minister and that the trial court must make a finding that the dispute underlying a cause of action is truly religious and involved a fundamentally ecclesiastical concern. Here, the judge properly determined that plaintiff's status as a minister precluded secular review, that finding alone was sufficient to dismiss the claims.

Finally, we reject plaintiff's argument that the letter was not directly associated with defendants' decision to fire him and instead that the letter spread false information and served another secular purpose. As the court stated in Gunn, "once it has been established the statements were made in relation to the process of [the plaintiff's] termination the ministerial exception applies regardless of the tortious nature of the statements."

In this case, the plain language of the letter clearly communicates RYNJ's decision regarding plaintiff's employment and indicates the reason for his termination. Although plaintiff questions the motivation behind sending the letter, as the court in Sumner found, the "First Amendment protects the act of a decision rather than a motivation behind it." Therefore, plaintiff cannot get around the protections of the ministerial exception by claiming that there are allegedly tortious motivations behind sending the letter.

This decision is "published" in that, as a matter of first impression, the Appellate Court has now established that the ministerial exception operates to bar any tort claim provided (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.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has just now agreed to review this case ruling. This is very significant as the state's highest court only agrees to hear less than 10% of the cases that seek its listening ear.

A hearing will be held in 2024.

Attorneys Richard I. Scharlat Esq. of Fox Rothschild LLP, Robert J. Tolchin Esq. of The Berkman Law Office, LLC, and Oleg Rivkin Esq. of Rivkin Law Group are representing Rabbi Hyman.

Attorneys Mark A. Berman, Jeremy B. Stein, Akiva Shapiro, and Jessica C. Benvenisty Esq. of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, and Hartmann Doherty Rosa Berman & Bulbulia LLC are representing Rosenbaum Yeshiva of New Jersey.

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