Libel Suit Against Hasidic Group OK'd

New York Law Journal , October 18, 1999
By Anna Snider

A Brooklyn man called a liar and "a robber" in a letter published by a Yiddish newspaper can pursue a previously dismissed libel claim against the publication, the authors and their religious congregation, the Appellate Division, Second Department, has ruled.

The statements made about appellant Nachman Brach, who was embroiled in a violent and bitter property dispute with Congregation Yetev Lev D'Satmar, an Hasidic group, constitute "mixed opinion," which is actionable, rather than "pure opinion," which is not, said the appellate panel in Brach v. Congregation Yetev Lev D'Satmar, Inc., No. 99-02517.

The unsigned decision, citing Steinhilber v. Alphonse, 68 NY2d 283, and three other cases, said the statements complained of could be read as mixed opinion, since they imply that "the speaker knows certain facts, unknown to his audience, which support his opinion and are detrimental to the person about whom he is speaking."

Nonetheless, the issue of whether the speech is defamatory remains to be litigated, the panel said in reversing and reinstating the complaint. The case has its roots in a long-standing dispute over a Brooklyn property. Congregation Yetev Lev D'Satmar, which is comprised of followers of the fervently Orthodox Satmar movement, purchased several parcels of land in the Williamsburg neighborhood to build a synagogue and a home for its religious leader.

For various reasons, Mr. Brach contended that the property had been taken from him fraudulently, and he sought a court declaration invalidating the sale. Mr. Brach lost on summary judgment in Kings County Supreme Court, but he appealed, and won in the Second Department.

After his win, Der Yid, an Orthodox Yiddish weekly with over 40,000 subscribers, published a statement signed by the executive board of the Satmar congregation, which among other things, chided Mr. Brach for pursuing his case in state court rather than in a rabbinical court. The statement also said Mr. Brach won the action "by lies and deceit," and declared, "Nachman Brach is a robber," according to the decision.

In April 1997, Mr. Brach sued the board, several individual defendants and Der Yid, seeking to recover damages for defamation. Kings County Supreme Court Justice Ariel Belen dismissed the complaint for failure to state a cause of action, finding that "a reasonable reader of the publication complained of would consider it to contain expressions of opinion rather than assertions of fact about [Brach]."

Noel Hauser of Manhattan represents Mr. Brach. Congregation Yetev Lev D'Satmar retained Barry Saretsky, of New York's Saretsky Katz Dranoff & Glass.

The Second Department panel included Justices Sondra Miller, Thomas R. Sullivan, William D. Friedmann and Sandra J. Feuerstein.

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