Judge Slams ADL for Hurting Couple Tarred As 'Anti-Semites'
By MARC PERELMAN FORWARD CORRESPONDENT
UPHOLDING most of a $10 million defamation suit against the Anti- Defamation League, a federal judge in Denver has lambasted the organization for labeling a nasty neighborhood feud as an anti- Semitic event.
In upholding the first-ever court defeat handed to the 87-year-old ADL, U.S. District Judge Edward Nottingham said the organization had endorsed and publicized the bigotry accusations of a Jewish couple against its neighbors without either investigating the case or weighing the consequences.
"Based on its position and history as a well-respected civil-rights institution, it is not unreasonable to infer that public charges of anti-Semitism leveled by the ADL will be taken seriously and assumed by many to be true without question," the judge wrote on March 31 in a 46- page order and memorandum of decision obtained by the Forward. "In that respect, the ADL is in a unique position of being able to cause substantial harm to individuals when it lends its backing to allegations of anti-Semitism."
The judge's opinion confirmed a verdict reached last April by a federal jury, which essentially accused the Denver chapter of the ADL and its regional representative, Saul Rosenthal, of falsely portraying William and Dorothy Quigley as anti-Semites. Mr. Quigley, an executive of the United Artists theater chain, said his career in the "predominantly Jewish and close-knit" film business had stalled after the incident.
"The ADL seized an opportunity to aggrandize itself as the defender of the Jews by unjustly accusing a middle-class couple of being anti-Semitic crooks," said Jay Horowitz, the Quigleys' Denver-based lawyer. "And all along, they showed an unbelievable arrogance."
At the same time, the judge reduced last year's judgment by some $675,000, cutting the punitive damages awarded to Mrs. Quigley under state law and reducing the Quigleys' compensatory damages to reflect money they received in an earlier settlement with opposing lawyers.
The ADL said it would appeal the decision to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver later this spring. The ADL's law firm, Long and Jaudon, claimed in a statement issued by the ADL last week that "there were reversible errors made during both pretrial and trial proceedings." Both the ADL and attorney Joe Jaudon refused to comment further.
What is not in dispute is that the ADL, after springing to the defense of a Jewish couple essentially seeking to strengthen their hand in a private dispute, now finds itself entangled in an embarrassing and potentially costly legal stew. The league's annual budget hovers around $50 million.
The judgment could harm its reputation as an aggressive but reliable monitor of anti-Semitism.
The ruling comes at a time when the ADL is also embroiled in the Marc Rich pardon scandal. The organization said it received some $250,000 in the past 15 years from the fugitive financier who received a controversial 11th-hour pardon from President Clinton. The league's national director, Abraham Foxman, declared last month that he "probably" had made a mistake in writing a letter to Mr. Clinton supporting the Rich pardon.
All this was not lost on Mr. Horowitz, the Denver attorney. "Can you imagine an organization using money from Marc Rich, a guy who made millions dealing with anti-Semitic countries like Iran, attacking powerless people for some alleged anti-Semitic slurs?" he said.
The Denver dispute began in August 1994, when Mitchell and Candice Aronson moved to the affluent suburb of Evergreen, Colo. The couple was initially befriended by the Quigleys, their neighbors, but relations quickly began to sour, escalating from complaints about dogs and stolen plants to an allegation by Mrs. Aronson that Mr. Quigley tried to run her over with his car. The Aronsons contacted the ADL on October 21, after concluding that the Quigleys were plotting to drive them out of the neighborhood because they were Jewish. The suspicions were based partly on a conversation on the Quigleys' cordless phone, which the Aronsons claimed they inadvertently overheard through their police scanner. They said they heard the Quigleys talking about sticking pictures of oven doors on their house, burning their children and wishing they had been blown up in a terrorist attack in Israel.
The ADL, after consulting with the district attorney, suggested that the Aronsons tape another six weeks' worth of conversations. None of the parties reportedly knew that Congress had outlawed such wiretaps on October 25.
In December, the Aronsons filed a federal suit against the Quigleys, accusing them of ethnic intimidation and violation of their civil rights. The following day, at a press conference, Mr. Rosenthal of the ADL labeled the Quigleys anti-Semitic and said they were planning attacks against the Aronsons. The district attorney's office also filed felony criminal charges of ethnic intimidation.
At that point, the case began to unravel. The Quigleys accused the Aronsons of waging a smear campaign against them. In January 1996, they sued the Aronsons and the ADL for violating their rights under the Federal Wiretap Act. In the meantime, the district attorney, who realized that the tapes were illegal, dropped the ethnic intimidation charge and agreed to pay compensation to the Quigleys. In February 1998, an out-of-court settlement was reached between the couples. But the settlement did not include Mr. Rosenthal and the ADL. Mr. Horowitz said he tried to settle numerous times with the ADL, but was rebuffed. The Quigleys accused the ADL of libel, false light invasion of privacy, invasion of privacy and violation of the Federal Wiretap Act. In April 2000, a jury accepted nearly all the charges and awarded them $10.5 million in damages, one of the largest defamation awards ever in Colorado. In reply, the ADL and Mr. Rosenthal called for a reduction of the judgment, or a new trial. Judge Nottingham, ruling on the ADL's motion to overturn the verdict, accepted none of the league's arguments. He pointed to evidence that Mr. Rosenthal and the ADL had not bothered to listen to the tapes, read the transcripts or investigate in-depth before publicly leveling the charge of anti-Semitism. He criticized what he called the selection of isolated comments from thousands of pages of transcripts to build the anti- Semitism accusation "in what could otherwise be regarded as mere sarcastic, banal and tasteless remarks uttered in a garden-variety dispute among neighbors." To support his argument, the judge cited an internal ADL memorandum written by Mr. Rosenthal in January 1995, in which the league official said he wanted "to be sure we are maximizing all opportunities that are available from the Aronson case and arrests.... In short, 'make hay while the sun shines' - graciously of course." Mr. Quigley, a New York native, was a chief financial officer at Paramount pictures and president of Vestron Pictures. There he produced the movies "Dirty Dancing" and "The Dead." He moved to Denver in 1993 to head the United Artists' theater chain in the region. As a result of the anti-Semitism charge, said his attorney of Mr. Horowitz, "He has become a pariah in the business." The judge concurred, repeatedly underlining what he called the "catastrophic impact" of the accusations on Mr. Quigley's career. He said the issue was actually raised in discussions within the Denver ADL. "In that respect, Rosenthal's conduct could be perceived as even more egregious, given his awareness of the stigmatizing consequences attached to accusations of anti-Semitism." Regarding the large damage award, the judge wrote that "it will, at a minimum, provide a deterrent effect against the ADL from engaging in future conduct involving the use of intercepted telephone conversations to pursue a civil lawsuit against persons perceived to be anti-Semitic."
(c) 2001 The Forward