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New Jersey Trial Judge Finds Conversion Therapy Outfit Violated Consumer Fraud Law

Posted on: February 17th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

A New Jersey trial judge issued two rulings in February in a pending consumer fraud case against JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing), an organization that provides so-called “conversion therapy” seeking to “assist individuals to purge unwanted same-sex attractions,” finding that certain representations made by JONAH to potential clients violate the state’s law against consumer fraud.  The judge, Peter  F. Bariso, Jr., of the Superior Court in Hudson County, also ruled that most of the expert witnesses proposed by JONAH should be barred from testifying, because their opinions were premised on discredited views about homosexuality.  Ferguson v. JONAH, 2015 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 236 (Feb. 5) (ruling on expert witnesses); Ferguson v. JONAH, Docket No. L-5473-12 (Feb. 10) (ruling on summary judgment motions).

Six individuals represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and attorneys from Clearly Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton (NY) and Lite DePalma Greenberg (NJ) filed the lawsuit in November 2014, claiming that they had been defrauded by JONAH and demanding reimbursement of the fees they had paid and compensation for the costs of therapy they had to undergo to undo the damage caused by JONAH’s ministrations.  Both sides had filed motions seeking to disqualify expert witnesses listed to testify by their opponents, and both parties filed motions seeking to have the court decide certain key issues in the case as a matter of law, without the need to submit disputed facts to the jury.  Judge Bariso issued his opinion on the expert witnesses on February 5, and his opinion on the summary judgment motions on February 10.

Common to both rulings was the question whether it is fraudulent for somebody to market a conversion therapy program by representing homosexuality as a mental illness, disease or disorder that can be “changed” by treatment, whether it was deceptive to make statements that would lead a prospective client to believe that they would be able to change their sexual orientation as opposed to merely being conditioned not to engage in same-sex activity, and whether it was fraudulent to include specific “success” statistics when there is no factual basis for calculating such statistics.  Judge Bariso made clear in his decisions that the plaintiffs were not mounting a general attack on the practice of sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) by mental health professionals, a practice that was recently made unlawful by a New Jersey statute that has withstood constitutional attack in federal court.  Rather, this consumer fraud suit is more narrowly focused on the question whether JONAH has defrauded and harmed these plaintiffs by the representations it made about its services.

“In the area of scientific evidence,” wrote Judge Bariso, “expert testimony will be deemed acceptable only if the technique or mode of analysis used has ‘a sufficient scientific basis to produce uniform and reasonably reliable results so as to contribute materially to the ascertainment of the truth,'” quoting from a 2005 New Jersey Supreme Court decision, State v. Torres.  “The reliability requirement applies to all scientific fields, including the social and psychological sciences.  In New Jersey, reliability of a scientific technique can be proven in most cases by showing its ‘general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs,'” quoting a leading case on the criteria for expert testimony, Frye v. United States.  In other words, if a proposed expert is going to express views on scientific topics that lie outside the “general acceptance” of the relevant profession, are not supported by “authoritative scientific and legal writing indicating that the scientific community accepts the premises underlying the proffered testimony;” or do not  have the support of relevant judicial opinions finding general acceptance, then such testimony should be excluded.

Using this standard, Judge Bariso found that the proposed scientific experts, all affiliated in some way with organizations supporting conversion therapy, were not qualified to testify.  “The overwhelming weight of scientific authority concludes that homosexuality is not a disorder or abnormal,” he found.  “The universal acceptance of that scientific conclusion — save for outliers such as JONAH — requires that any expert opinions to the contrary must be barred.”  The judge focused on the 1973 vote by members of the American Psychiatric Association to remove “homosexuality” from its official listing of mental disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which was soon followed by other professional and public health organizations both domestically and internationally.

“JONAH’s suggestion that the court should ignore the DSM misapprehends basic New Jersey law,” he wrote.  “Under the general acceptance standard, the DSM is unquestionably authoritative in the mental health field; courts repeatedly have concluded this to be the case.”  JONAH contended, as some critics have argued, that the APA’s vote was “a politically motivated decision to de-stigmatize homosexuality, and was not based on science.”  But, countered the judge, it is not up to a trial court to “substitute its judgment for that of the relevant scientific community.”  The court does not sit in judgment of whether the APA’s decision was correct, “and no proper basis has been advanced on which a court may reassess the scientific accuracy of the psychiatric characterization of homosexuality.”  After reciting the long list of prestigious organizations that followed the APA’s lead, Bariso commented, “JONAH can hardly argue that all of these organizations — including a federal appellate court [rejecting the challenge to New Jersey’s ban on SOCE therapy] — were the victims of manipulation by ‘gay lobbying’ groups.”

JONAH had pointed to the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), a small organization co-founded by one of the proposed expert witnesses, Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, a fervent proponent of conversion therapy, as an example of contrary scientific opinion by a professional organization, but the judge pointed out that there need not be unanimity of professional opinion, merely general acceptance.  “The existence of a minority of conversion therapy proponents does not and cannot negate the fact that the DSM and its exclusion of homosexuality are generally accepted in the mental health field,” wrote Bariso.  “Furthermore, a group of a few closely associated experts cannot incestuously validate one another as a means of establishing the reliability of their shared theories.”

Furthermore, he pointed out, “JONAH has not identified any case that provides a standard for the admission of obsolete and discredited scientific theories.  By definition, such theories are unreliable and can offer no assistance to the jury, but rather present only confusion and prejudice.”

Judge Bariso also ruled that two proposed experts should be denied because their testimony was not really relevant to the consumer fraud claims before the court.  Whether JONAH’s statements were consistent with Orthodox Judaism, for example, was irrelevant if the statements were misleading about homosexuality and the efficacy of the therapy offered by JONAH.  Similarly irrelevant was testimony about the health risks of engaging in homosexual conduct.

The findings about homosexuality in the court’s February 5 ruling were incorporated by reference into the February 10 ruling on the summary judgment motions.  Judge Bariso denied all of JONAH’s motions, and granted several of the plaintiffs’ motions.  Specifically, he ruled that “it is a misrepresentation in violation of the Consumer Fraud Act, in advertising or selling conversion therapy services, to describe homosexuality, not as being a normal variation of human sexuality, but as being a mental illness, disease, disorder, or equivalent thereof” and that “it is a misrepresentation in violation of the Consumer Fraud Act, in advertising or selling conversion therapy services, to include specific ‘success’ statistics when there is no factual basis for calculating such statistics, e.g., when client outcomes are not tracked and no records of client outcomes are maintained.”  However, the judge concluded that it should be up to a jury to decide whether a person would be misled by JONAH’s description of the “change” its therapy sought to achieve with clients.  The court also struck out several affirmative defenses advanced by JONAH, including claims that its representations were constitutionally protected speech or free exercise of religion.

While these pretrial rulings do not end the case, they sharply increase the likelihood that JONAH will be found at trial to be liable to the plaintiffs for damages.  It will be up to the plaintiffs to prove that JONAH made the unlawful representations, that its statements about the “change” it sought to achieve through therapy were similarly misleading, and that as a result the plaintiffs were defrauded and are entitled to a refund of fees (in some cases as much as $10,000 for a year of treatment) as well as compensation for the treatment they subsequently sought because of the psychological injury they claim to have suffered as a result of the therapy.  The burden at trial to prove these injuries is placed on the plaintiffs.

Although New Jersey Superior Court decisions are not routinely published, the legal database LEXIS has published Judge Bariso’s February 5 ruling, which includes a detailed report of the plaintiffs’ allegations about some of the treatment methods used by JONAH’s counselors.  To this reader, these techniques appear on their face to be simplistic, misguided, and potentially damaging to the mental health of the clients, as the plaintiffs claim.  They also sound, in some cases, strangely homoerotic as well, and thus potentially quite troubling to clients who were desperate to purge themselves of homosexual attractions.

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