NEW YORK, May 14 (JTA) — The Anti-Defamation League, stung by a courtroom defeat for the first time in its 87-year history, has asked the judge to review a jury’s $10.5 million verdict against it.
But while the appeals process moves forward, the ADL says it’s still business as usual.
“We’re going to keep on representing Jews who feel threatened or harassed, so it’s not going to affect our work,” said Jill Kahn Meltzer, ADL’s corporate counsel.
The jury, in its April 28 verdict in Denver, found the ADL’s Mountain States chapter and its director liable for violating the Federal Wiretap Act and for defaming and violating the privacy of a Colorado couple publicly accused of anti-Semitism.
The couple had been feuding with its Jewish neighbors, who had asked the ADL to intervene in 1994.
In response to the motion filed May 12, the judge can lower or eliminate the damages, or throw out the April 28 verdict entirely. If he sticks by the jury’s decision, ADL officials say they will appeal to a higher court.
“We have every faith in the judicial system, that the right thing will be done at the end of the day,” said ADL spokeswoman Myrna Shinbaum.
“We were shocked and dismayed by the jury’s decision. We don’t think we did anything wrong. We think we did everything right.”
With the wheels of the appeal process just set in motion, it’s too early to tell what, if any, ramifications such a costly verdict would have on ADL’s $45 million annual budget and its wide range of activities.
Moreover, it’s unclear whether the verdict, if it stands, would merely be seen as an aberration or as a precedent-setter in the field of advocacy on behalf of the persecuted.
Meltzer said the organization had taken no disciplinary action against the Denver-area ADL director, Saul Rosenthal, whose statements about the Colorado couple, the Quigleys, at a 1994 news conference were the primary bone of contention. His comments were based on the testimony of the Jewish neighbors, the Aronsons.
“We didn’t determine that he said something he shouldn’t have,” Meltzer said. “He’s been fully supported by the ADL throughout the litigation.”
The long-running case was triggered by a dispute over their dogs. It escalated when Candace Aronson accused William Quigley of trying to run her over with his car in their affluent suburb outside Denver.
Soon after, the Aronsons, who had a police scanner in their home, “inadvertently” overheard the Quigleys on their cordless telephone. They overheard a number of crude anti-Semitic comments — later described as “jokes” — and what they perceived to be threats against them.
The “jokes” reportedly included ideas like attaching images of oven doors to the Aronson’s house — an apparent reference to the Holocaust — burning the Aronsons’ children, and wishing the Aronsons had been blown up in a terrorist attack in Israel.
The Aronsons asked the ADL for help. They also probed into the legality of tapping and taping the Quigleys’ phone lines to produce evidence. Meltzer said they approached their own attorney, the local district attorney, the Federal Communications Commission and the ADL. The ADL also checked with the FBI.
“It was everyone’s understanding that it was legal,” Meltzer said.
The go-ahead was given Oct. 20, 1994. But unbeknownst to the ADL and the Aronsons, just five days later the new law outlawing wire-tapping went into effect. Both parties only learned about it in December of that year, said Meltzer.
The local district attorney filed charges of ethnic intimidation against the Quigleys, only to later withdraw it and pay the Quigleys $75,000 in an out- of-court settlement. The Quigleys and Aronsons also settled out of court, with no exchange of money.
The Aronsons moved from the neighborhood two years ago.
Yet, the case against the ADL remained, with the Quigleys asserting the ADL had infringed upon their civil rights. William Quigley also claimed his career with United Artists theaters had been ruined after being publicly labeled “anti-Semitic,” which he said were based on the off-color remarks alone.
Ultimately, the jury’s award for damages went well above and beyond what even the Quigleys requested.
ADL officials were forbidden by the judge to contact jury members to investigate the rationale behind their verdict. The rules for such contact vary, depending on the judicial district, Meltzer said.
All of which adds to the bewilderment of ADL officials.
Said Meltzer, “It’s difficult to know what the jury was thinking and to understand how they reached this verdict.”