Torah Center Victory
Chabad lawsuit against congregation is dismissed, but appeal is expected.
The lawsuit by Chabad-Lubavitch of Michigan seeking title to the Sara and Morris Tugman Bais Chabad Torah Center of West Bloomfield was dismissed — practically before it got started.
Oakland County Circuit Judge Rae Lee Chabot ruled Aug. 15 that Chabad of Michigan, led by Oak Park-based Regional Director Rabbi Berel Shemtov, waited too long to file its suit and was barred from its legal action against the Torah Center, its board of directors and its rabbi, Elimelech Silberberg.
Furthermore, the judge held that the Torah Center and its board could not be sued to enforce the prior decision of a Lubavitch bais din (rabbinical court) because only Rabbi Silberberg — not the board or synagogue — was a party to the bais din hearings.
Because she dismissed the lawsuit on these procedural grounds, Judge Chabot did not have to rule on whether the Torah Center, which Chabad of Michigan had considered to be a “renegade” offshoot, is subject to the hierarchal control of Chabad. She also did not rule on the obligations of Rabbi Silberberg with regards to the bais din judgment that Chabad of Michigan had sought to enforce.
The Torah Center filed its motion to dismiss the lawsuit on June 11, 2012, in lieu of formally responding to the allegations in Chabad of Michigan’s complaint. Chabad countered with its own motion for an immediate judgment in its favor, which the judge denied.
In its April 17, 2012, lawsuit, Chabad of Michigan sought to enforce an Aug. 14, 2004, bais din arbitration agreement that, on June 6, 2005, ordered the Torah Center to turn over the deed to its synagogue.
In her decision, Judge Chabot characterized the bais din as “a common-law arbitration” and said the six-year Michigan statute of limitations to enforce it began running with the initial arbitration agreement in 2004. Chabad’s lawsuit was filed 7½ years later.
Chabad had argued that the statute of limitations should not have started running in 2004 because the bais din’s ruling had been amended as late as 2008, and Chabad was not granted permission by religious authorities to file suit until 2009.
If Judge Chabot’s decision is not appealed by Chabad, the case is over.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed,” said Chabad of Michigan’s attorney Norman C. Ankers of Detroit-based Honigman Miller Schwartz & Cohn.
“Judge Chabot did not make any ruling on the merits of the claim. She simply ruled that the claims were either time-barred or that the complaint did not set forth causes of action [against all the defendants].
“We expect to appeal, and we expect to be vindicated. It doesn’t matter who’s ahead in the first inning, but who’s ahead when the game’s over.”
The counsel representing all the Torah Center defendants praised the court’s ruling.
“We’re elated,” said Todd R. Mendel of Barris Sott Denn & Driker in Detroit.
“I think Judge Chabot took a good, solid route that she thought would withstand scrutiny by the Court of Appeals. I think she purposefully was very careful to try to take a road that would lead to a justified decision.”
Gilbert Borman of Bloomfield Hills, an attorney who was in court on another matter and heard the proceedings, said afterward, “I’ve got friends on the Shemtov side, and I’ve got friends on the Silberberg side. I feel very sad that they can’t work it all out.
“I would ask them to find a way that everyone could sit down with somebody who could arbitrate this dispute. This isn’t good for Lubavitch. They’re a wonderful organization, and every minute they waste their time in court and fighting they’re not doing good deeds for the Jewish people.
“I look at Lubavitch as a community treasure, and I only want good for them and from them.”
By David Sachs, Senior Copy Editor