Jury Awards $20M In Rabbi Sex Case

Christopher Peak Photo Hartford — A federal jury Thursday ordered prominent Rabbi Daniel Greer and his Elm Street yeshiva to pay $15 million in compensatory damages to a former student who said the rabbi raped and repeatedly abused him 15 years ago.

The jury awarded an additional $5 million in punitive damages, to pay the lawyers.

In adjudicating a civil lawsuit brought by Eliyahu Mirlis, a former high school student at the Yeshiva of New Haven, the jury deliberated in U.S. District Court here for 12 hours over two days before coming to its unanimous decision.

The eight jurors slapped Greer with the eight-figure bill for the emotional suffering he caused Mirlis by assaulting and battering the boy over a three-year period, from his sophomore to senior years at the high school. The panel calculated the total after also concluding that Greer and the yeshiva had shown recklessness and intentional infliction of emotional distress and the school separately had displayed negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

That sum was less than half of the $38 million that the plaintiff’s attorney, Antonio Ponvert III, had requested.

Jurors also requested that the court nail Greer with extra punitive charges to pay Mirlis’s lawyers. That added another $5 million to the bill.

“This completely justified all my faith in the justice system. Even an incredibly difficult case can be resolved fairly on the facts,” Ponvert said. “What the plaintiff suffered and what has been suffered by children for generations need to stop, period. Child abuse, in all forms, is a plague that we all need to work together to stop.”

When asked why he believed his side prevailed, Ponvert responded, “The truth.”

Greer’s defense said the rabbi plans to appeal the verdict.

“We are extremely disappointed by the jury’s verdict, and intend to pursue all potential options to set it aside, including an appeal,” defense attorney David Grudberg wrote in an email.

The verdict followed a suspenseful four-day trial here at U.S. District Court, with a cliff-hanger ending about whether the yeshiva was also liable.

Two victims — Mirlis and the yeshiva’s assistant dean, Aviad Hack — both described their underaged sexual encounters with Greer in graphic detail. Shira Mirlis, the victim’s wife, said the abuse had hardened her partner, preventing him being vulnerable. An expert in childhood sexual abuse and a University of Connecticut professor, Julian Ford, explained to jurors that the inability to trust was an normal response to “betrayal trauma,” as he diagnosed Mirlis with post-traumatic stress disorder.

From Greer’s side, the jurors didn’t hear much of a denial. The rabbi repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. (He denied only one accusation: That he’d had sex with Mirlis on a forested parcel of land in Hamden.) The defense’s other witnesses presented only mitigating evidence: Neither the rabbi’s wife, Sarah Greer, nor his secretary, Jean Leadbury, had noticed anything unusual, they testified. The team’s defense instead, relied heavily on a set of cheery wedding photos showing Mirlis continued to maintain a relationship with his abuser, honoring the rabbi at life milestones.

Final Stabs At Character Assassination

The final day in federal court Wednesday wrapped up with attorneys presenting 40-minute closing arguments from a podium arms-length from the jury box. The lawyers’ summations of the case volleyed from high-minded (with references to the Founding Fathers) to ad hominem (with accusations of deception and cheating).

Ponvert, Mirlis’s counsel, said the two victims’ testimony and an expert’s diagnosis proved the accusations against Greer were more likely than not true — meeting the lower standard, a preponderance of the evidence, used in civil suits as opposed to in criminal trials.

Ponvert, from the firm Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder, argued that the yeshiva also deserved blame. Hack, effectively the school’s manager, had suspected the rabbi was abusing Mirlis, once even trying to beat down a locked door where Greer was having sex with the boy inside. He failed to report his suspicions to child welfare and law enforcement authorities as required by law.

The defense, Ponvert added, still hadn’t fleshed out its counter-arguments: why Greer couldn’t deny the accusations, why Mirlis would want to attack someone he revered, why Hack admitted to only one sexual encounter as a student if he truly wanted to bring down the rabbi, and why the University of Connecticut pyschiatry professor might have been so “duped” by his client.

In closing, Ponvert asked for $38 million in damages to repay Mirlis for his stolen childhood and his pain since. He argued that Mirlis’s first experience with intimacy should have been dating a girl he loved. “Not a forced kiss, not fellatio, not anal sex. Not with a man and not with a rabbi. Not pseudo-romantic nights in motels with alcohol and hot tubs. Not coerced intimacy but real intimacy,” Ponvert said. “What this man did to Eli Mirlis has affected him in such a way that he cannot have a trusting relationship. And at the end of our lives, ladies and gentlemen, what do we all have but relationships with people that love us and the people we love, the moments we share with them and the experiences that bond us? Eli doesn’t have that.”

When defense attorney William Ward stood up, he first thanked the jury for being in attendance —  “more than I can say for the plaintiff,” the lawyer added, pointing out that Mirlis had been largely absent throughout the trial aside from a few hours on the stand Monday afternoon. He then argued there was no hard evidence of abuse in the exhibits. He called Mirlis a “liar” and a “cheat.”

“That’s not even an inference; it’s an admission,” Ward said. Mirlis “told you some other lies, big or small.”

The defense attorney made one last attempt to explain why Greer hadn’t denied the accusations. Because Mirlis had spoken with police a year ago, keeping silent on “anything that tends to incriminate you” by pleading the Fifth would be “wise,” Ward explained. “That could mean anything that puts Mr. Mirlis or Mr. Greer alone in the same room during four years in high school, anything.” He added that Ponvert had fired “loaded questions” throughout the trial, cornering Greer into remaining silent.

Ward repeatedly sought to impeach Mirlis’s credibility. Mirlis, for example, testified that his grades suffered when he rebuffed Greer’s entreaties, but Ward pointed out that his report card didn’t reflect this, with five As and two B-pluses in classes Greer supposedly taught.

Several times, though, Ward himself twisted Mirlis’s testimony to make it sound deceptive. In one misrepresentation, Ward claimed Mirlis had lied about when he first informed his wife about Greer’s abuse. Ford, the UConn psychiatrist whom Ward described as a “hired gun,” said Mirlis kept the molestation secret during couples counseling —  a fact that wasn’t incompatible with Mirlis’s account of first telling his wife when they were dating. But Ward conflated the two, making it sounds like Mirlis had misled someone. That’s despite the fact that Mirlis testified, under oath, that Ford didn’t ask when he first confessed to his wife, so he didn’t tell the psychiatrist.

In another attempt to portray Mirlis as dishonest, Ward said Mirlis had lied about having sex with Greer repeatedly for 26 hours at a hotel in Paoli, Pennsylvania. Ponvert had indeed tried to portray the stay as an overnight orgy, but Mirlis had corrected him on the stand. To avoid violating the Sabbath, Mirlis indicated that they had sex only before Friday’s sundown and after Saturday’s sundown. By closing statements, Ward had reshaped that exchange to look dishonest. “It’s not ‘the 26-hour sex-fest’ that he told you in direct, isn’t it? It’s a lie, it’s a lie,” Ward claimed.

Ponvert fired back with a seven-minute rebuttal, calling Ward’s speech the “most bizarre and inaccurate” closing statement he’d heard in his career. Flustered with anger, he paused once to compose himself.

“I’m so frustrated I don’t know what to say at this point. Everyone wants this man out of here!” he exclaimed, his voice rising. “He’s [Greer’s] a child molester.”

Ponvert ended by saying it had been an honor to represent Mirlis, as well as a weighty responsibility. “I share that with you,” he said. “I ask you to accept that burden.”

“Dunkin’ Donuts Please”

During the two full days that jurors argued in a locked room, starting at 11:35 a.m. on Wednesday, the rabbi paced around the courtroom, asking his lawyers about court procedure, gossiping with his wife about spectators and making several trips to the bathroom. Sarah Greer serenely read a book in the stands.

At 3:03 p.m. on Wednesday, jurors knocked on the door to indicate they had a question. They handed an unsigned, yellow sheet of paper to the marshal. It read, “If we finish this evening, will [we] be able to render a decision tonight or still have to come back tomorrow?” Judge Michael P. Shea sent his deputy into the room to let them know that if the court accepts their verdict tonight, they wouldn’t have to return.

At 3:19, they sent out another note. “We could use fresh coffee and donuts. Dunkin’ Donuts, please.”

The jurors sent out a note at 4:35 p.m. asking to replay Hack’s deposition. At 5:01 p.m., a second note said they’d finish deliberations on Thursday.

Back in the courtroom at 9:10 a.m. on Thursday, jurors examined the last 20 minutes of Hack’s deposition. Under pressure by Ward to name exact dates when Greer had sex with him as a student, Hack said he could not remember a single instance, aside from the first fondling. In the same clip, Hack said he knew about mandatory reporter laws, “certainly by 2007” — two years after Mirlis graduated.

For nearly four hours, the jury discussed whether the yeshiva had been negligent. After lunch, they wrote in a note that they couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict on that specific charge.

At 12:51 p.m., Judge Shea asked them to shrug off any fixed conclusions and reassess the evidence. “This is an important case for all parties. Therefore it’s important for you to reach a verdict without anyone surrendering a conscientiously held view,” Shea said. “There does not appear to be a reason why this case could be tried better or more exhaustively on either side, nor that any other men or women will be more intelligent, more impartially chosen or more competent to decide the case than you.” He added that jurors in the minority, in particular, should reexamine why more of their colleagues had tipped to the other side. “Take as much time as you need to discuss things; there is no rush.”

At 3:39 p.m., the jury handed back their ruling. After reading through verdict form, count by count, each juror stood individually to affirm agreement with the decision.

The defense team left silently, hurrying outside into oncoming traffic. Red-faced, Greer hugged Ward in the parking lot behind the courthouse, then slid into his minivan.

Beginning in the 1980s, Rabbi Greer oversaw the revival of the neighborhood around his yeshiva at the corner of Norton and Elm streets, renovating neglected historic homes.

Over the years, Greer has also crusaded against gay rights in Connecticut, at times played an active role in politics and government, and advocated for keeping nuisance businesses out of the Whalley Avenue commercial corridor. He and his family earned national attention for exposing johns who patronized street prostitutes in the neighborhood, for filing suit against Yale University over a requirement that students live in coed dorms, and then in 2007 for launching an armed neighborhood “defense” patrol and then calling in the Guardian Angels for assistance to combat crime. In the 1970s, Greer also led a successful campaign to force the United States to pressure the Soviet Union into allowing Jewish “refuseniks” to emigrate here and start new, freer lives.

Previous coverage of this case:

Suit: Rabbi Molested, Raped Students
Greer’s Housing Corporations Added To Sex Abuse Lawsuit
2nd Ex-Student Accuses Rabbi Of Sex Assault
2nd Rabbi Accuser Details Alleged Abuse
Rabbi Sexual Abuse Jury Picked
On Stand, Greer Invokes 5th On Sex Abuse
Rabbi Seeks To Bar Blogger from Court
Trial Mines How Victims Process Trauma
Wife, Secretary Come To Rabbi Greer’s Defense

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Comments

posted by: Dwightstreeter on May 18, 2017  4:07pm

Maybe it’s time to eliminate the statute of limitations in child abuse cases.
The Kent School, Choate Rosemary Hall and Brearley all have issues with predators sexually abusing or exploiting children in their care.
Society failed to protect the children; it should at least give them recourse for the rest of their lives.

posted by: LivingInNewHaven on May 18, 2017  4:15pm

How do people who lose like this pay the money? Does the money come from a victims fund?

posted by: Dwightstreeter on May 18, 2017  4:33pm

People pay from insurance, hard assets, like real property, cash on hand, investment accounts, etc.
Sometimes they avoid payment by filing bankruptcy, although not always.
OJ had all his money in retirement accounts and they couldn’t be touched.

posted by: Cardiff on May 18, 2017  4:50pm

Mr Greer does not deserve any sympathy, but it would be tragic if money that could have gone to educate future yeshiva students will go to personal injury lawyers

posted by: eliantonio on May 18, 2017  5:16pm

Just as Cardinal Law and the sick pediphiles he protected will not receive gods help when it’s time to answer for their twisted depravity, so too shall this false prophet, and those who looked to him will now see that blind faith comes at a cost.
I hope this disgusting excuse for a man suffers a living fate worse then that awaiting him in the next life

posted by: Joy Monsanto on May 18, 2017  5:52pm

When my storied appeared, it received over 50 comments.  Jess sayin
No comments

posted by: Bill Saunders on May 18, 2017  7:41pm

Wow, that was a quick decision.

I predict Bankruptcy before Fire Sale.

posted by: Bill Saunders on May 18, 2017  7:43pm

Cardiff,

I don’t think there are going to be any future Yeshiva students….the whole scheme has been blown, so to speak.

posted by: Bill Saunders on May 18, 2017  7:53pm

Joy,

You make an interesting point, but each story speaks for itself in different ways.
Don’t put yourself in the middle of this one.  I think everybody is on the same side.

[Paul: Also this story is a few hours, not a few days, old.]

posted by: East Rocker on May 18, 2017  8:32pm

This article says that the parties held liable were Greer and the Yeshiva.  Folks at the NHI: does the “Yeshiva” include the non-profit housing entities that Greer ran which were named as defendants in the case, were closely aligned with the Yeshiva, but which were, I am assuming separate corporate entities?

If they were, then I hope city officials, especially LCI, are watching this case closely.  If those non-profit housing entities are liable here, then a large part of the money could come from selling off their assets - i.e. the dozens of houses that those orgs own in the Edgewood-Elm neighborhood.  That many houses being sold off at once, especially if they end up in the wrong hands, could seriously destabilize the neighborhood.

My first concern is, of course, for Mr. Mirlis.  Hopefully city officials can manage the fallout from this verdict so that many more people don’t also get hurt as a result of Greer’s actions.

[Ed.: Our understanding is that the housing corporations were added as defendants in the third amended complaint but then dropped by the time of the verdict. It may be that they play a role in the hunt for assets.  I just don’t know. This is complicated legal terrain.]

posted by: Joy Monsanto on May 19, 2017  3:38am

I actually have not read the story, nor am I putting my self in the middle at all, I just made an observation… not sure what your issue is???

posted by: NH INDIE on May 19, 2017  8:21am

A lot of Jewish locals are in disbelief. Their blind faith has generated some cognitive dissonance surrounding this trial. They cannot bring themselves to fathom the prospect of such a holy man being a liar.

Having been a previous student at Greer’s Yeshiva, I can attest to the abusive culture, and general depravity of the institution. As 13 year old boys, Greer would rub our shoulders, nibble on our ears, and inflict psychologically abusive punishments on us. Some punishments included being locked in a room for 16 hours a day, being locked in an apartment for an entire weekend, or being locked in a room for a whole week, only leaving to retreat to the dorm to sleep.

I saw the horror show of Greer first hand. But at the time, I didn’t think anything of it. I accepted the culture because I was young and naive. I’d like to think that if I were a victim I would speak out. But cases like this are emotionally eroding, and I think its easy for some to ask “Why didn’t Mirlis come out earlier”... But that is a shallow sentiment. Matters like this are very confusing for the victim. There are still victims out there who, even after seeing the monetary compensation they are entitled to, will not come out about Greer because of the overwhelming trauma they experience.

posted by: JohnTulin on May 19, 2017  8:21am

Crusades against gay rights, tackles prostitution - more typical hypocrisy from men of the cloth.  This atheist hopes that, if there is a god, Rabbi Greer won’t be able to plead the fifth when he meets him.

posted by: LorcaNotOrca on May 19, 2017  8:31am

@Joy

You’re commenting on a story about a the guilty verdict of a rabbi who abused children at his school. You didn’t even read the story, yet you’re just stopping by to say your article got more comments??

What exactly is your point doing this here?

posted by: BetweenTwoRocks on May 19, 2017  9:31am

It sounds like the correct verdict was given and justice was served, to the extent that it ever can be. The lives destroyed can never really be given back. The damage is done. Those hurt can never be given back what was stolen from them.

It is a shame how, much like the Penn State scandal, people could’ve stepped in and protected these kids, but they could not manage to imagine the horrors happening inflicted by the people they knew, and they failed to help the most vulnerable.

I have no idea what it will mean for the Edgewood neighborhood, but with any luck, the city will help figure out a way forward that doesn’t destabilize it.

posted by: denny says on May 19, 2017  9:48am

Let’s hope the NHPD brings criminal charges.

posted by: Joy Monsanto on May 19, 2017  11:03am

I’m actually surprised at what people choose to comment on, not at all bragging about the attention my article received . .... I know all about the situation with Rabbi Greer and refuse to comment because I’m sure I’m going to be attacked. Like I said no comment. Surprised this article doesn’t have more comments is all. My article was way Less important. Good day!

posted by: Joy Monsanto on May 19, 2017  11:15am

The point is my write up didn’t deserve the attention it received….. we have way more important issues to worry about in this city  
People pick and choose what is important to them to comment on. Mental note is all.

posted by: Joy Monsanto on May 19, 2017  11:50am

Prayers to the victims and their families…..

posted by: BetweenTwoRocks on May 19, 2017  11:56am

Joy,

The number of comments on an article is not at all a reflection of the importance of the story. It is more of a reflection of how controversial a story is, or how many people have opinions on this.

In the case of this course decision there is very little controversy. Everyone agrees it is terrible, so it’s unlikely to spill into a heated argument.

Your case, however, was much more opinionated because people feel very strongly about bar and restaurant openings, as well as the makeup of their neighborhoods, etc. Their day to day lives are much more affected by the quality of the bars and restaurants in their lives than the outcomes of even horrible crimes like in this article.

posted by: LorcaNotOrca on May 19, 2017  2:38pm

@ Joy

In that case, I misinterpreted your comment. Thanks for clarifying.

posted by: NH INDIE on May 19, 2017  2:57pm

Stop trolling, Joy. Join the Facebook group @Lets Argue if you wanna troll

posted by: duncanidaho645 on May 19, 2017  3:15pm

Joy, notice how many positive comments you got on your article and how many positive comments Greer has gotten on the many articles about this issue.  How dare you try to make this story about you.

posted by: Joy Monsanto on May 19, 2017  4:48pm

Trolling Lol…. about me Lol. Guys I’m a Peaceful Person, this is why it took me 5 years to sign on to this News paper…
People warned me that any comment would turn negative. You won,
PLUR
Peace, Love, Unity, Reapect
Prayers go out to the Victims and Families.

posted by: Joy Monsanto on May 19, 2017  5:48pm

Thnx LorcanotOrca 🙂