Hebrew Academy suit dismissed Rabbi Lipner to appeal

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A San Francisco Superior Court judge last week dismissed a $10 million lawsuit filed by Rabbi Pinchas Lipner and the board of Hebrew Academy against the S.F.-based JCF and its past president, Richard Goldman.

Judge Ronald E. Quidachay ruled on Wednesday, Feb. 4, that Lipner long ago allowed the one-year statute of limitations to expire prior to filing suit in 2002. The suit claimed Goldman defamed the rabbi and his school in a 1992 oral history interview of past JCF officials.

“This is what we hoped for. We’re exonerated,” said Sam Salkin, the Jewish Community Federation’s outgoing CEO.

Salkin also said that the suit caused “valuable community resources to be spent needlessly … Thousands of dollars in legal expenses and staff time could have been much more valuably applied to the needs of the community.”

Goldman said he is “very pleased with the outcome.”

Lipner refused to be interviewed. But his attorney, Paul Kleven, said he plans to file an appeal.

The judge’s ruling “says you lose the right to clear your name before you know you’ve been defamed, which is what happened here,” Kleven said.

The attorney told j. his client could not “with reasonable diligence” have discovered the 1992 interview any sooner than he did, which was in 2001. The courts disagreed however, dismissing the case via summary judgment.

Extensions to the statute of limitations for defamation usually apply only to circumstances involving fraudulent concealment of documents or inherently private records such as credit reports or personnel files, noted Brad Zamczyk, JCF co-counsel. “I think legal authority was clearly on our side,” he said.

With such a specific ruling regarding the statute of limitations, Zamczyk predicted that any appeal would be “shot down quickly.”

Lipner extended his lawsuit to include the regents of the University of California, which published the interview, in December 2002. But they, too, argued that the statute of limitations had expired, and the case against them was dismissed in September 2003, though Kleven filed an appeal shortly thereafter.

The 1992 interview was one in a series of “oral histories” funded by the federation and undertaken by the regional oral history office of U.C. Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. In addition to Goldman, more than a dozen former federation presidents and executives have given extremely candid interviews for the project.

Forty pages into the hundred-page interview, questioner Eleanor Glaser asked Goldman, the federation’s president from 1981 to 82, about Hebrew Academy.

His page-and-a-half of discourse on the matter includes the statement: ” I think [Rabbi] Lipner is a person who doesn’t deserve respect for the way he conducts his affairs.”

Goldman also said that when the rabbi entered a room at Hebrew Academy, “the children would stand at attention as if it were the Fuhrer walking in.”

In addition, Goldman said that Lipner “was run out of other communities,” citing Cleveland as a “community that did not tolerate him.”

Only a handful of the Goldman interviews exist: The S.F.-based JCF owns a copy, as does the Bancroft Library. Goldman has several, and Glaser and former JCF executive director Rabbi Brian Lurie each own one.

While Lipner claimed the above statements, and others, were libelous (and, in fact, Lipner never did reside in Cleveland), Salkin and his attorneys claimed they were Goldman’s opinions, which are not actionable under state libel law. But the statute-of-limitations ruling appears to have rendered this argument academic unless a court of appeal reverses it.

In seeking $10 million in damages, Lipner claimed the interview tarnished both his and Hebrew Academy’s reputation, induced emotional distress and damaged the school’s ability to raise funds.

In the 20 years preceding the lawsuit, though, the federation had allocated roughly $6.3 million to the school, while the Jewish Community Endowment Fund contributed more than $1 million toward a new building.

In the past two years, the JCF has not contributed directly to Hebrew Academy; Salkin said this decision is not a result of the lawsuit. Instead, he said, it was a result of the school’s failure to submit financial audits in a timely fashion or to acknowledge within its printed materials that it was a JCF beneficiary agency.

Since 2002 alone, Hebrew Academy has been sued by six different companies or individuals aiming to recoup monetary loans or alleging non-payment of services.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.