Rabbi Daniel Greer of New Haven File photo
New Haven Rabbi Daniel Greer found liable for $15 million in civil trial alleging he sexually abused a student
By Anna Bisaro, New Haven Register
Rabbi Daniel Greer, his wife, Sara, and lawyer William Ward leave the federal courthouse in Hartford Thursday. Anna Bisaro — New Haven Register
A federal jury Thursday awarded a New Jersey man $15 million in his civil lawsuit accusing Daniel Greer, a prominent New Haven rabbi, real estate developer and founder of an Orthodox Jewish school of sexually abusing him for years while he attended Greer’s yeshiva.
The verdict was read at 3:40 p.m., with jurors in agreement that there was enough evidence to find Greer and the Yeshiva of New Haven legally liable over the victim’s accusations that Greer raped and sexually molested him over several years.
The jury was tasked with determining liability on civil counts against Greer and the yeshiva. The counts included negligence by the school, intentional infliction of emotional distress by Greer and the school, recklessness by the school and Greer and assault and battery against Greer.
The jury found there was sufficient evidence on each count.
The $15 million award in compensatory damages was announced at the time of the verdict. The victim also is entitled to punitive damages. By state law, punitive damages are calculated as one-third of the verdict, or $5 million in this case. As of late Thursday, the amount of punitive damages had not been determined. The judge asked the lawyers to file a memo about how they felt punitive damages should be determined and the amount would be discussed later.
Greer, principal of Yeshiva in New Haven and the Gan School, who also was a leader in the revitalization of the city’s Edgewood neighborhood, was accused in May 2016 of repeatedly raping and molesting a former student, Eliyahu Mirlis, of New Jersey, over several years in the early- to mid-2000s. Mirlis attended the school from 2001 to 2005.
After the verdict was read and the jurors had left the courtroom, Mirlis’ lawyer, Antonio Ponvert III, pumped his fist in celebration as he gathered his belongings.
“This completely justifies all faith in the justice system,” Ponvert said. “Even incredibly difficult ... cases can be solved fairly.”
Neither Mirlis nor his wife, who had been present for some of the trial, were present for the reading of the verdict. Mirlis appeared in court to testify, but was absent for the rest of the proceedings.
“What the plaintiff suffered and has been suffered by children for generations needs to stop,” Ponvert said. “Child abuse in all its forms is a plague that we should all work together to solve.”
Greer’s attorney Bill Ward said they would appeal the verdict.
“We feel the verdict is outrageous, especially in light of the fact that the jury was deadlocked a mere two hours before they rendered it,” he said.
David Grudberg, who along with Ward was Greer’s trial counsel, said, “We are deeply disappointed with the verdict and will pursue all possible options to challenge it, including an appeal.”
Mirlis claimed in the federal lawsuit that Greer had sexually abused him in his sophomore, junior and senior years at the school, and that some of the abuse had occurred on school property. The federal complaint states that the abuse began when Mirlis was 15 and Greer was in his 60s. The alleged abuse included sexual acts and being forced to watch pornography while drinking alcohol. The suit also alleged these acts occurred in Greer’s home, motels in Branford, and other properties owned by the school.
The New Haven Register generally does not identify people who allege sexual abuse, but Mirlis wanted to come forward, his lawyer said. Mirlis, now 29, said the abuse has led him to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as well as distress, humiliation, depression, low self-esteem, and an inability to maintain emotional relationships, according to court documents.
According to court documents, Greer invoked his right against self-incrimination at a deposition last year. He repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment rights last week when he was compelled to testify at the civil trial.
Greer’s lawyers asked a judge to bar Mirlis from calling Greer to the witness stand, but the request was denied.
Ultimately, the jury was asked to decide whether the Yeshiva of New Haven was negligent in hiring and supervising Greer and whether Mirlis’ claims of suffering a result of that negligence and if Greer did cause the emotional distress Mirlis claimed to have suffered.
Greer declined to comment Thursday.
The jury heard closing arguments Wednesday morning and began deliberations just before lunch. A conclusion was not reached and the eight jurors — four men and four women — returned to deliberate Thursday.
Thursday morning began with a replaying of the deposition of Aviad Hack, another former student of Greer, who also claimed to have entered into a sexual relationship while he was a student at the Yeshiva in New Haven. Hack has not filed his own case, but said that later as an employee for the school, he knew of the abuse Greer allegedly was inflicting on other boys and did not report it.
The video played Thursday showed Hack being questioned by both sides about his alleged relationship with the rabbi. Hack said that he believed his relationship with Greer began sometime in 1991 or 1992 — he graduated in 1992 — and had continued to about 2003.
After watching the tape, the jurors continued their deliberations for another three hours. At about 12:30 p.m., they reentered the courtroom and told U.S. District Judge Michael Shea, who had presided over the case, that they could not come to an agreement on the first charge in the complaint — whether the school was negligent. Shea instructed the jury to return to deliberations and take the questions out of order if they had to, to continue moving on. Shea also said the jury should not feel rushed or pressured into making a decision.
In a civil trial, the burden of proof lies with the plaintiff. The threshold for civil liability is lower than in a criminal case, which requires guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. New Haven police have an open investigation involving the allegations of sexual assault by Greer.
Greer is one of the founders of the Gan School, which was founded as an experiment in blending religion and education in 1977.