By: Sruli Fruchter  | 

YU Wins Appeal Challenging Anonymity of 32 Plaintiffs in Sex Abuse Lawsuit

A panel of appellate judges on Thursday, Jan. 20 unanimously overturned the lower court’s decision to allow 32 plaintiffs to remain anonymous in the sexual abuse lawsuit against Yeshiva University, citing insufficient evidence to validate the plaintiffs’ anonymity. 

In August 2019, 38 former students sued YU for covering up sexual abuses by staff members of its Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy (MTA) high school for boys, including its then-principal, George Finkelstein. The suit was filed one week after the New York State Legislature passed the Child Victims Act, which provided a one-year window that began on Aug. 14, 2019 — later extended for another year because of the pandemic — for individuals who were sexually abused as children to seek compensation through civil proceedings. Since others joined later on, the total number of plaintiffs in this suit currently sits at 47, with only seven using their real names.

The appellate judges — Barbra Kapnick, Anil Singh, Peter Moulton, Martin Shulman and John Higgitt — wrote that the plaintiffs “only submitted a short attorney affirmation, which merely repeated the relief requested in the order to show cause and made a single vague statement that plaintiffs might suffer further mental harm should their identities be revealed.”

In closing, the judges wrote, “Plaintiffs failed to provide any specific evidence as to why each unnamed plaintiff should be entitled to proceed anonymously.” 

On July 6, 2020, Judge George Silver made the initial ruling that those plaintiffs could continue using pseudonyms as opposed to their real names. “[It] is axiomatic that plaintiffs should be afforded the protection of anonymity,” he wrote in that ruling. “To be sure, the instant case involves alleged acts that will no doubt center on information about plaintiffs of a sensitive and highly personal nature. The court recognizes that plaintiffs, as the alleged victims of sexual abuse, have undoubtably suffered great emotional distress.” 

Kevin Mulhearn, the plaintiffs’ lawyer in this case, told The Commentator he intends to resubmit the 32 plaintiffs’ affidavits and expects that they will be able to retain their anonymity, as he credits the appellate judges’ decision to a technicality.

In their appeal, YU’s main arguments against granting the 32 plaintiffs anonymity were that the plaintiffs did not file “specific reasons” to justify each person proceeding anonymously and did not file individual affidavits. The appeal noted that other anonymous plaintiffs who did so were “not at issue in this appeal.” (Sometime after the appeal was filed, one of the anonymous plaintiffs dropped out, bringing the number of those in question down from 33 to 32.)

In a statement sent to The Commentator, a legal spokesperson for YU declined to provide further information but said, “we can share that these were procedural issues that, as reflected by the Appellate Division’s unanimous ruling, are common in this sort of litigation.”

“It’s remarkable that people still don’t understand that bringing a sex abuse case speaking about as a child is difficult for these plaintiffs and causes a lot of trauma in and of itself,” Mulhearn said. “We think that it’s important for a client or plaintiff to remain anonymous if he or she so desires. Otherwise, if forced … they [may] decide to not pursue their case.” 

This suit names YU, its MTA high school, the board of trustees, former Chancellor Rabbi Norman Lamm, who passed away in 2020, and former Vice President Robert Hirt as defendants.

As of publication, Karen Bitar, one of YU’s lawyers from Seyfarth Shaw LLP, did not immediately respond to The Commentator’s request for comment. 

Photo Caption: In August 2019, 38 former students sued YU for covering up sexual abuses by members of MTA’s staff, including its then-principal, George Finkelstein.

Photo Credit: The Commentator