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New York Appellate Division Rules on Controversial Custody Dispute Between Hasidic Father and Ex-Hasidic Lesbian Mother

Posted on: August 22nd, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

The New York Appellate Division court in Brooklyn has unanimously reversed a trial judge’s decision to take away a formerly-Hasidic lesbian mother’s custody of her three children, finding, among other things, that the settlement agreement drafted by her ex-husband’s father at the time of their divorce imposed an unconstitutional requirement that she continue to observe the tenets of a Hasidic lifestyle as a condition of her custody of their children. The August 16 decision, issued “per curiam” by a four-judge bench, aroused concerned comment in the Hasidic community, as it applied well-established principles of family law that the trial judge, himself an Orthodox Jew, seemed to have overlooked in giving preemptive weight to the father’s religious desires.  Weisberger v. Weisberg, 2017 WL 3496090, 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 6174, N.Y. Slip Op. 06212.

Naftali and Chava Weisberger were married in 2002. They were brought together, according to established custom in the Hasidic community, by a professional matchmaker (called a shadchan), and were both 19 years old at the time.  They moved to Boro Park, Brooklyn, from the tight Hasidic community in Monsey, N.Y., and had three children together.  The move was prompted by Naftali’s desire to pursue religious studies.  They raised their children according to traditional Hasidic practices and beliefs, in a home with no television or internet, observing strict restrictions of diet and dress and speaking Yiddish at home.

After a few years of marriage, Chava informed Naftali that “she did not enjoy sexual relations with men and that she was attracted to women.” They continued to live together, but after several years Naftali agreed to give Chava a “Get” (a Jewish divorce), and they signed a settlement agreement (which was drafted by Naftali’s father) on November 3, 2008.  Naftali married another woman a few weeks later, and has since had two children with her, prompting the speculation that he was finally willing to grant a religious divorce to free himself to marry somebody else.

Under the written settlement terms, the parents had joint custody of the children with Chava having primary residential custody. They agreed that Naftali’s visitation with the children would be for a two-hour period once a week after school (which would increase for the son as he grew older, for the purpose of religious study), overnight visitation every other Friday after school until Saturday evening for Sabbath observance, two weeks during the summer, and an alternating schedule for Jewish holidays.  But, Chava testified, Naftali did not exercise his visitation rights fully for the first 18 months of his new marriage, and would not bring the children to his new home for visitation, hosting them instead at his parents’ home.

The central provision in the custody dispute was the “religious upbringing clause,” which provided: “Parties agree to give the children a Hasidic upbringing in all details, in home or outside of home, compatible with that of their families. Father shall decide which school the children attend.  Mother to insure that the children arrive in school in a timely manner and have all their needs provided.”  The settlement also provided that each party “shall be free from interference, authority and control, direct or indirect, by the other.”  Chava agreed to waive any claim to marital assets or further financial support for herself, but the agreement obligated Naftali to pay $600 a month for support of the children.

Several events appear to have contributed to lead Naftali to file his motion with the court on November 29, 2012, more than three years after the divorce. He alleged that Chava had “radically changed her lifestyle in a way that conflicted with the parties’ religious upbringing clause.”  For one thing, she had eventually decided that the older daughter was old enough to be told about Chava’s sexual orientation, to the consternation of Naftali, who expected Chava to keep this a secret and to keep any relationship she had with a woman secret from the children.  Naftali claimed that Chava had come out publicly as a lesbian, disparaged the basic tenets of Hasidic Judaism in front of the children, allowed the children to wear non-Hasidic clothes, permitted them to violate the Sabbath and kosher dietary laws, and had referred to them by English names rather than the names by which they were known in the Hasidic community.  To top things off, Chava was not dressing according to Hasidic tradition, she had dyed her hair, and a transgender man had moved in and was participating in taking care of the children.

Naftali sought sole legal and residential custody of the children and final decision-making authority over their lives, limiting Chava to a few hours of supervised “therapeutic visitation” each week, and to require strict compliance with the religious upbringing clause when the children were in her presence, either for visitation or at school.

Upon filing the lawsuit, Naftali sought an immediate order giving him temporary residential custody, which he got from Judge Eric Prus. A few days later, the parties agreed to a temporary visitation order for Chava, giving her several days a week but providing that she would “encourage and practice full religious observance in accordance with the practices of Emunas Yisroel in the presence of the children” and “in the Boro Park community, the mother shall dress in the Hasidic modest fashion.”

Chava came back with her own motion, seeking to modify the religious upbringing clause. She wanted permission from the court to bring up the children with “a conservative or progressive modern orthodox Jewish upbringing” in a community that “is inclusive of gay individuals.”  She wanted permission to locate them outside of Boro Park, but within the borough of Brooklyn, and to attend a “conservative or progressive modern orthodox Jewish school that is similarly inclusive.”  She wanted educational decisions to be made jointly, not dictated solely by Naftali.  She proposed that the father be able to continue the children’s Hasidic education by having visitation each Sabbath, and she would promise to keep a kosher home and insure that the children go to school and have their needs provided.  She was also willing for Naftali to have the children for all Jewish holidays.

Judge Prus held a hearing at which Naftali and Chava testified about their marriage and relationship with the children. It seemed that during the marriage Naftali left the house early in the morning and didn’t return in the evening until after the children were asleep, leaving Chava primarily responsible for taking care of them.  They had a strictly Hasidic kosher home.  Naftali testified that upon the divorce he had expected that Chava would keep her sexual orientation a secret from the children and the community, even though the written settlement did not state this.

It was clear from Naftali’s testimony that he did not have extensive contact with the children after the divorce, and even when he resumed some contact, he had visitation in his parents’ home rather than his own home, presumably to shield his new wife and children from being contaminated by non-Hasidic influences. He filed his motion to change custody shortly after learning that a transgender man had moved into the mother’s home and was assisting in taking care of the children.  He had also recently noticed the children wearing non-Hasidic clothing and learned they were eating non-kosher food.  Chava had even allowed them to see movies – forbidden in the Hasidic community.  Naftali also testified that “in March, 2013, the younger daughter told him that she had read a book about children with two fathers and other books about homosexuality.”

Naftali denied that the motivation behind his request for a change in custody was Chava’s lesbian identity. Instead, he pointed to her failure to keep it a secret from the children, and said he wanted sole custody to ensure that they would get a traditional Hasidic upbringing without “interference” from their mother.  He objected to them being exposed to non-religious people, or to intimate relationships that were against Jewish law.  “The father believed that homosexuality violated the Torah,” wrote the court, and when asked if he was amenable to some compromise, he said, “There’s no place for comprising in our religion.”

Chava testified that she was not represented by a lawyer during the divorce process, and that a rabbi guided her in negotiating the settlement. A rabbi served as mediator.  She was under the impression that various changes she sought would be made in the settlement agreement, but when she appeared at the Beth Din (religious court) to sign the agreement, it did not include her changes.  Under the settlement, she agreed to waiver her right to support for herself or any of the marital property, leaving as Naftali’s only obligation the monthly support payments, which she testified she never received from him, although the obligation was spelled out in the settlement agreement.

She testified that she had never been as strictly observant as Naftali, even before the divorce, and that she had taken the children for counseling at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services and enrolled the older daughter in group therapy for children from divorced families. She never told the children about her sexual orientation until in 2012 she learned that the older daughter suspected that Chava was gay, so Chava consulted with the daughter’s therapist and then confided in her daughter.  She testified that her transgender friend came to live with them in September 2012, got along well with the children, but then the older daughter returned from a visit with her father apparently confused and upset, because some of father’s family had “teased about her level of religious observance” and told her that Chava’s friend was “really a woman.”

After the temporary custody arrangement was ordered by the court and the children were spending half of each week with Naftali’s family, Chava “found the children would often be upset and confused.” She said that she felt hypocritical for continuing to obey the religious observance requirements of the court’s order so that she could continue to have the children without supervision, and she found Naftali’s custody proposal to be “devastating, as she had been the most present parent in the children’s lives since they were born,” and she was concerned about their emotional well-being in their father’s custody.  She wanted to raise the children as Jewish, but not according to strict Hasidic requirements and rather in the context of a community that respected and accepted diversity.

Justice Prus, finding that Chava’s conduct had been in conflict with the settlement agreement, said that had there been no such agreement, he might have considered the parties’ arguments “differently,” but “given the existence of the Agreement’s very clear directives, the Court was obligated to consider the religious upbringing of the children as a paramount factor in any custody determination.” He ruled largely in favor of Naftali, awarding him sole legal and residential custody and final decision-making authority for the children, and decreed that Chava would only have limited supervised visitation if she did not comply fully with the religious upbringing clause.  Denying Chava’s motion to modify the religious upbringing clause, Prus made clear that if she wanted unsupervised visitation with the children several days a week, she would have to “practice full religious observance in accordance with the Hasidic practices of ultra Orthodoxy” whenever the children were with her, and she would have to direct the children “to practice full religious observance in accordance with Hasidic practices of ultra Orthodoxy at all times.”

Chava appealed this draconian ruling. She was represented by attorneys from Seward & Kissel LLP and the N.Y. Legal Assistance Group, which has a dedicated LGBT assistance practice, and she had amicus brief support from Lambda Legal and the NYCLU, as well as two organizations particularly concerned with her situation: Footsteps, Inc., which assists women seeking to leave the Hasidic community, and Unchained at Last, Inc., an organization assisting women who seek to leave arranged marriages.  According to a Hasidic website commenting on the case, Chava actually works with Footsteps, Inc.  An amicus brief by the prominent firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP represented the views of these two organizations.

The case was argued before the Appellate Division on November 14, 2016, and it took nine months for the court to compose its opinion, released on August 16.

While acknowledging that a trial court’s determinations in a custody case are normally given great weight, the Appellate Division panel wrote that its authority in such a case is “as broad as that of the hearing court,” and in this case the court decided to discard much of the trial court’s ruling. To begin with, it found that Justice Prus’s decision to award Naftali sole legal and residential custody and decision-making power over the children, while consigning Chava to brief supervised visitation unless she adhered to strict Hasidic practice, “lacked a sound and substantial basis in the record,” as the court had given “undue weight to the parties’ religious upbringing clause.”

New York courts do not consider the parties’ settlement agreement provisions as a “paramount factor” in deciding a custody dispute. The court’s determination of what is the best interest of the children takes priority over any private arrangement the parents have made.  The court quoted earlier decisions holding that “clauses in custody agreements that provide for a specific religious upbringing for the children will only be enforced so long as the agreement is in the best interests of the children,” and Naftali had fallen short in showing that it was in their best interests to put him in total control of their lives in the way suggested by the trial court’s order.

“The mother has been the children’s primary caretaker since birth,” wrote the court, “and their emotional and intellectual development is closely tied to their relationship with her. The record overwhelmingly demonstrated that the mother took care of the children’s physical and emotional needs both during and after the marriage, while it is undisputed that the father consistently failed to fully exercise his visitation rights or fulfill his most basic financial obligations to the children after the parties’ separation.  Indeed, aside from objecting to her decision to expose the children to views to which he personally objects, the father expressed no doubts whatsoever about the mother’s ability to care and provide for the children.  The weight of the evidence established that awarding the father full legal and residential custody of the children with limited visitation to the mother would be harmful to the children’s relationship with her.”

The court found no evidence that unsupervised visitation would be detrimental to the children and “it was wholly inappropriate to use supervised visitation as a tool to compel the mother to comport herself in a particular religious manner.”

The court pointed out that the settlement agreement itself was focused on giving the children a Hasidic upbringing, and “did not require the mother to practice any type of religion, to dress in any particular way, or to hide her views or identity from the children. Nor may the courts compel any person to adopt any particular religious lifestyle.”  Citing, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 decision striking down the Texas sodomy law, Lawrence v. Texas, the court said that “a religious upbringing clause should not, and cannot, be enforced to the extent that it violates a parent’s legitimate due process right to express oneself and live freely.”  The court particularly noted the provision in the settlement agreement that each party “shall be free from interference, authority and control, direct or indirect by the other.”

The court concluded that it was not in the children’s best interest “to have their mother categorically conceal the true nature of her feelings and beliefs from them at all times and in all respects, or to otherwise force her to adhere to practices and beliefs that she no longer shares.” However, the court was not ready to completely grant Chava’s motion to modify the religious upbringing clause in the settlement agreement.  Since the children had spent their lives in the Hasidic community, attended Hasidic schools, and visited with extended family who were observant Hasidic Jews, the court decided that Naftali should continue to exercise final decision-making authority about their education, and that he could continue to require that, at least while they were in his custody or attending their Hasidic school, they “practice full religious observance in accordance with the Hasidic practices of ultra Orthodoxy.”

The court said it would be best for the children if the parents “work together to surmount the challenges the children will face as they continue on their current educational path. As such, we deem it appropriate to direct the mother to make all reasonable efforts to ensure that the children’s appearance and conduct comply with the Hasidic religious requirements of the father and of the children’s schools while the children are in the physical custody of their father or their respective schools.”  Also, it noted that Chava intended to keep a kosher home and to provide the children exclusively with kosher food.  However, “we otherwise modify the religious upbringing clause to allow each parent to exercise his or her discretion when the children are in his or her custody.”  The court also decreed more visitation time for Naftali than was provided in the original settlement, and accepted Chava’s proposal that Naftali have the children for all Jewish holidays and that she get the non-religious holidays and vacation time.  For two weeks in the summer the children will be with Naftali, as had been provided in the original settlement agreement.

The court acknowledged that neither party would be fully satisfied with its disposition of the case, but, it said, “courts do not always have the perfect solution for all of the complexities and contradictions that life may bring – the parties must forge a way forward as parents despite their differences. We are confident that both parties will exercise their best judgment in these matters in a manner that furthers the best interests of their children.”  The court reminded the parties that their original settlement provided that neither would seek to alienate the children from the other, or “speak idly about the other party in front of the children.”

As neither party got everything they were seeking, it would not be surprising if one or try to appeal this ruling to the Court of Appeals. The Appellate Division has left them to negotiate over issues as to which Naftali, at least, testified that there could be “no compromise.”  Since the divorce, Chava has come out of the Hasidic community and sought to raise her children in a progressive modern Orthodox community.  How these concerns will be reconciled is anybody’s guess, and the idea that these children will shuttle back and forth each week between two very different worlds will pose an extraordinary challenge to them.  We may not have heard the last about this case.

 

Sexual Orientation Discrimination Under Title VII in the 2nd Circuit: A Work in Progress

Posted on: May 11th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

As the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ponders three petitions asking for en banc consideration of the question whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 can be interpreted to ban sexual orientation discrimination as a form of sex discrimination, a federal trial judge in Manhattan has ruled that “in light of the evolving state of the law,” it would be “imprudent” for the court to grant a motion to dismiss a gay plaintiff’s sexual orientation discrimination claim.

Senior District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein, appointed by Bill Clinton in 1998, issued his ruling in Philpott v. State University of New York on May 3, the day after the third en banc petition was filed.   An en banc hearing in the 2nd Circuit involves participation by all eleven active judges in the circuit, plus any senior judges who participated in a three-judge panel decision that is being reheard en banc.  Appeals are normally heard by three-judge panels, which are bound to follow existing circuit precedents.  Only an en banc panel (or the Supreme Court) can reconsider and reverse such precedents.

The 2nd Circuit ruled in 2000, in the case of Simonton v. Runyon, that Title VII could not be interpreted to forbid sexual orientation discrimination.  This holding was reiterated by a second panel in 2005, in Dawson v. Bumble & Bumble, and yet again this year on March 27 in Christiansen v. Omnicom Group.  However, the 2nd Circuit’s Chief Judge, Robert Katzmann, who was sitting as a member of the panel in Christiansen, wrote a concurring opinion, joined by one of the other judges, arguing that the issue should be considered en banc in “an appropriate case.”  Katzmann’s discussion basically embraced the arguments articulated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in its 2015 decision holding that David Baldwin, a gay air traffic controller, could bring a sexual orientation discrimination claim under Title VII against the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The first of the en banc petitions was filed on April 19 in Cargian v. Breitling USA, Inc., in which another Manhattan trial judge, George B. Daniels, dismissed a gay watch salesman’s Title VII sexual orientation discrimination claim, finding that 2nd Circuit appellate precedents binding on the court rejected sexual orientation claims as a form of sex discrimination.  Judge Daniels ruled on September 29, 2016, and Frederick Cargian filed an appeal to the 2nd Circuit.  When the Christiansen decision was issued on March 27, it became clear that Cargian’s appeal to a three-judge panel would be a waste of time and judicial resources, and the American Civil Liberties Union, representing Cargian along with the New York Civil Liberties Union and solo plaintiffs’ attorney Janice Goodman, decided to petition the Circuit to take the case up directly en banc.

The second petition was filed on April 28 by Matthew Christiansen’s attorney, Susan Chana Lask.   The three-judge panel in Christiansen’s case had refused to allow the case to continue on a sexual orientation discrimination theory, but had concluded that it was possible that Christiansen would be able to proceed under a gender stereotype theory.  The panel clarified the 2nd Circuit’s approach in such cases, rejecting the trial judge’s conclusion that if the factual allegations suggest that sexual orientation played a role in the discrimination suffered by the plaintiff, he would be not be allowed to proceed under Title VII.  The trial court’s approach overlooked an important element of Title VII, an amendment adopted in 1991 providing that a plaintiff is entitled to judgment if sex is a “motivating factor” in his or her case, even if other factors contributed to the employer’s discriminatory conduct.  The Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that discriminating against an employee because the employee fails to conform to gender stereotypes is evidence of discrimination because of sex.  In such a case, the sexual orientation of the plaintiff would be irrelevant, so long as the plaintiff could show that gender stereotyping was a motivating factor in their mistreatment.

At first it appeared that Christiansen would not seek en banc review, despite Judge Katzmann’s concurring opinion, as the panel unanimously voted to send the case back to the district court for consideration as a gender stereotyping case. Attorney Lask was quoted in newspaper reports as preparing to proceed to trial on the stereotyping theory.  The ACLU’s en banc petition changed the game plan, evidently, and Christiansen’s en banc petition was filed on April 28.

Meanwhile, on April 18, a different panel of the 2nd Circuit decided Zarda v. Altitude Express, once again holding that a gay plaintiff could not advance a sexual orientation discrimination claim under Title VII.  Gregory Antollino, an attorney for an executor of the Estate of Donald Zarda, a gay skydiving instructor who had died in a skydiving accident after the being discharged from his employment, filed a petition for en banc rehearing on May 2, with Stephen Bergstein of Bergstein & Ullrich as co-counsel representing a co-executor.

The very next day Judge Hellerstein issued his ruling, allowing Jeffrey Philpott, the gay former Vice President of Student Affairs at the State University of New York’s College of Optometry to pursue his Title VII sexual orientation discrimination, hostile environment and retaliation claims. Judge Hellerstein rejected the defendant’s alternative argument that even if sexual orientation discrimination is covered by Title VII, Philpott’s factual allegations were insufficient to support his claims.  However, Judge Hellerstein joined with several other district judges within the 2nd Circuit in ruling that an employee of an educational institution may not bring an employment discrimination claim under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1992, which bans sex discrimination by educational institutions that receive federal money.  Although the plain language of Title IX can be interpreted to cover employment discrimination claims, Hellerstein agreed with other courts that have found that Congress did not intend to supplant Title VII, with its specific time deadlines and administrative exhaustion requirements, for employees of educational institutions who have sex discrimination claims.

After briefly describing the 2nd Circuit precedents, Hellerstein noted defendant’s argument that the court must dismiss the sexual orientation claims, and also Philpott’s request for leave to file an amended complaint focused on gender stereotyping.  “Neither relief is appropriate,” wrote the judge.  “The law with respect to this legal question is clearly in a state of flux, and the Second Circuit, or perhaps the Supreme Court, may return to this question soon.  In light of the evolving state of the law, dismissal of plaintiff’s Title VII claim is improper.”

Hellerstein then provided a summary of Judge Katzmann’s Christiansen concurrence, which he referred to more than once as a “majority concurrence” as it was signed by two of the three panel members. Hellerstein pointed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals en banc decision in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, issued on April 4, in which “the Seventh Circuit became the first Court of Appeals to unequivocally hold that ‘discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination’ and therefore cognizable under Title VII.”

“Among other reasons,” wrote Hellerstein, “the Seventh Circuit made this ruling ‘to bring our law into conformity with the Supreme Court’s teachings.’ The Seventh Circuit was also compelled by ‘the common-sense reality that it is actually impossible to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation without also discriminating on the basis of sex.’”

Hellerstein asserted that because Philpott “has stated a claim for sexual orientation discrimination, ‘common sense’ dictates that he has also stated a claim for gender stereotyping discrimination, which is cognizable under Title VII. The fact that plaintiff has framed his complaint in terms of sexual orientation discrimination and not gender stereotyping discrimination is immaterial.  I decline to embrace an ‘illogical’ and artificial distinction between gender stereotyping discrimination and sexual orientation discrimination, and in so doing, I join several other courts throughout the country.”

A few days after Hellerstein’s ruling, another panel of the 2nd Circuit avoided dealing with the same question in Magnusson v. County of Suffolk, an appeal from a May 2016 ruling by District Judge Sandra Feuerstein in the Eastern District of New York (Long Island).  Judge Feuerstein had rejected Arline Magnussen’s sexual orientation harassment Title VII claim on alternative grounds: that 2nd Circuit precedent does not allow sexual orientation claims, and that the employer could not be held liable under Title VII because Magnussen had unreasonably failed to invoke the employer’s internal grievance procedure to deal with her harassment complaint.  In a short memorandum signed by the Clerk of the Court, the 2nd Circuit ruled on May 11 that it need not address the Title VII interpretation issue in light of the district court’s finding that the employer could not held liable for whatever harassment the plaintiff might have suffered.

In terms of en banc review, in both Cargian and Zarda the court would face a case where the only stereotyping claim that would be viable would be that as gay men the plaintiffs did not conform to the stereotype that men should be attracted to women, so it would have to deal directly with the question whether sexual orientation is, as the EEOC stated and the 7th Circuit accepted, “necessarily” sex discrimination.  In Christiansen, the appellate panel found that the plaintiff might invoke other gender stereotype issues to make a viable claim under Title VII under the Circuit’s existing precedents, thus providing a less certain vehicle for getting the Circuit to confront the central legal issue.

If the 2nd Circuit grants the Christiansen or Cargian petitions, the en banc panel would consist of the eleven active members of the court.  If it grants the Zarda petition, those judges could be joined by two senior judges, Robert Sack and Gerard Lynch, who sat on the three-judge panel.  Of the eleven active judges, a majority were appointed by Democratic presidents: three by Clinton and four by Obama.  If the senior judges are added, a thirteen-member panel would include four appointed by Clinton and five appointed by Obama.  It is not clear from the Circuit’s published rules whether the senior judges could participate if the Circuit decides to consolidate the cases for rehearing en banc, but it is possible that they could only participate in deciding the Zarda case.