Perpetrators of anti-Semitic acts in New York State have long faced the possibility of hate-crime charges. But now they may face civil-damages lawsuits as well — no matter how minor the offense.
Bradley Gerstman and David Schwartz, partners at the firm Gerstman Schwartz LLP, announced along with Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein their new initiative to file damages against anyone who commits an antisemitic crime, from serious assault cases, to vandalism of a shul or scratching a swastika on a car.
“We’re going to shine the light on these criminals, wherever they are hiding, whatever alleyway they’re in, we are going to shine the light through a lawsuit campaign,” Schwartz said, in an interview the lawyers and Assemblyman held with Hamodia on Monday in Eichenstein’s Boro Park office.
After soaring in 2019 and then dropping in 2020, hate crimes against Jews are on the rise yet again. There have been 111 complaints of antisemitic hate crimes in New York City in 2021 through July 4, a 61% increase over the same period of last year. Most of these complaints typically involve a property crime like the scrawling of a swastika, but some have been assaults. (The NYPD does not provide a precise breakdown of property crimes and assaults.) But the attorneys behind the new initiative say no crime, no matter how small, should go unpunished.
“It starts with a rock through the window, but we know throughout history, “ said Schwartz, “that little graffiti on the building, what does it lead to? It leads to someone burning down the building. It leads to bigger and bigger and bigger, because they don’t stop.”
Schwartz and Gerstman say having an elected official onboard to publicize the project and get victims to come forward is essential to the success of the initiative, which relies on a large number of cases being brought to act as a deterrent, both for past as well as would-be perpetrators, in addition to providing compensation to victims.
The attorneys, both former prosecutors and long-time friends of Eichenstein’s, say they reached out to the Assemblyman and suggested this new project as a result of their shared alarm over the growing number of antisemitic crimes as well as frustration with the criminal-justice system.
Bail-reform laws enacted in 2019 means criminal suspects are often back on the street within 24 hours after an arrest, without posting bail. Eichenstein has been a staunch opponent of these reforms, particularly as they relate to hate crimes, and has sponsored a bill to give judges discretion to impose bail on anyone arrested for any hate crime.
These lawsuits will be more effective than “a criminal justice case where you’re in and out of jail in 15 minutes and then you’re back home and then there’s no real repercussions for it, even if it is a hate crime,” said Gerstman. “We will continue to litigate against you, and to get a judgment against you. You’ll have to pay for a lawyer, and then of course once we get a judgment against you, we’re going to put a lien —we could lien your bank account, we could lien your property, we could lien your real property, we could garnish your wages — we can do all sorts of civil remedies to put the pinch on you for committing this crime.”
This is not the first time Gerstman and Schwartz, who live in Nassau County and have offices in Manhattan and Garden City, have been motivated to action in response to anti-Semitism. In 2015, with swastika graffiti proliferating in Nassau, they offered a $1,000 reward for anyone providing information leading the arrest of a suspect for an antisemitic crime. And in 2019, amid a rash of assaults on Jews in New York and elsewhere, they offered to defend on a pro bono basis any Jew “arrested for fighting back against an anti-Semite.”
“There are lots of intellectuals sitting around tables, trying to figure out solutions to problems, said Schwartz. “And we do that too. But we’re also street lawyers.” And if anyone commits an antisemitic act, he says, “they better be prepared to defend themselves on assault cases, on property damage cases, because I don’t care if the property damage is $10, we’re going to take the case all the way.”
Tort lawsuits would be filed in all cases, and serious assaults may result in civil-rights suits as well.
While Schwartz and Gerstman would earn contingency fees on any damages recovered, they say financial gain would likely be negligible — they don’t expect there to be much damages awarded when a perpetrator knocks off someone’s yarmulke or scrawls a swastika on a shul.
“No lawyer would take these cases for money; they’re not worth it financially,” says Gerstman. “These are message cases.”
Eichenstein and the attorneys are asking anyone who believes they have a victim of an antisemitic crime to reach out to the Assemblyman’s office and have a suit filed on their behalf — whether they have been the victim of an assault, a property crime or were removed unjustly from an airplane. Past victims may also come forward; New York state has a one-year statute of limitations for intentional torts.
The Assemlyman who represents heavily Orthodox Boro Park and a portion of Midwood says his goal is for his constituents to once again feel a sense of security in their own homes.
“When I was a kid growing up in Boro Park, I used to leave my house Friday night and go to tisch until 1:00 a.m; my parents were never worried,” says Eichenstein. “Now I hear from constituents, ‘I don’t go to sleep at night until my child is home.’ We need to do something. Yes, we support the police, but their hands are tied. Lawmakers have tied the hands of judges. So we need to take this additional step of filing civil lawsuits to do whatever we can to stop the madness.”