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SPLC trial starts in landmark consumer fraud case against New Jersey conversion therapy provider

The SPLC suit claims therapy purporting to turn gay people straight is fraudulent and based on junk science.

Jury selection is underway in the SPLC’s landmark consumer fraud case against a New Jersey provider of conversion therapy, which purports to turn gay people straight.

Opening arguments in the Superior Court of New Jersey are expected to begin on either Tuesday, June 2 or Wednesday, June 3.

The SPLC filed the suit – Michael Ferguson, et al., v. JONAH – in 2012 against conversion therapy provider JONAH for deceptive practices that lured plaintiffs into the expensive, harmful therapy.

The case, brought under New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act, is the first of its kind nationally.

“This case is about exposing the lie that LGBT people are mentally ill and that they need to be cured,” said David Dinielli, SPLC deputy legal director. “Groups like JONAH should not be allowed to use bogus therapy, based on junk science, to scam LGBT people and their families out of thousands of dollars.”

The lawsuit claims that JONAH, its founder, Arthur Goldberg, and counselor Alan Downing violated New Jersey’s consumer fraud law by claiming their counseling services could cure clients of being gay, according to the lawsuit.  The plaintiffs are three young men who were harmed by the practice and two parents who paid for JONAH’s conversion therapy. The therapy can cost more than $10,000 a year.

The SPLC has already won several key rulings in the case.

On Feb. 5, Superior Court Judge Peter F. Bariso Jr. excluded several key defense witnesses, including Joseph Nicolosi, a founder of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), and some of the country’s other prominent conversion therapy proponents – because their opinions are based on the false premise that homosexuality is a disorder.

Bariso wrote that “the theory that homosexuality is a disorder is not novel but – like the notion that the earth is flat and the sun revolves it – instead is outdated and refuted.”

On Feb. 10, Bariso granted the SPLC a partial summary judgment, ruling that misrepresenting homosexuality as a disorder in marketing conversion therapy services violates the state’s consumer protection laws. It was the first time a court in the United States has found that homosexuality is not a disease and that it is fraudulent for conversion therapists to make such a claim.

Conversion therapy has, in fact, been discredited or highly criticized by virtually all major American medical, psychiatric, psychological and professional counseling organizations. People who have undergone the therapy have reported increased anxiety, depression, and in some cases, suicidal ideation.

The suit alleges that counselors’ techniques alienated clients from their families by encouraging them to blame their parents for being gay. Sessions included violent role play exercises in which clients beat effigies of their mother with a tennis racket.

The lawsuit also describes sessions involving clients undressing in front of a mirror and a group session in which young men were instructed to remove their clothing and stand naked in a circle with the counselor, Downing, who was also undressed. In another session, a client was instructed to wrestle two oranges, representing testicles, from another person. 

JONAH was formerly known as Jews Offering New Alternatives for Homosexuality. Its founder, Goldberg, is a former Wall Street executive and lawyer who was previously convicted of three counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy to defraud the federal government. He was disbarred.

In addition to Nicolosi, the judge in February excluded conversion therapy supporters Christopher Doyle, James Phelan and John Diggs because, he held, their opinions are based on the false premise that homosexuality is a disorder.

The trial begins amid a nationwide groundswell against conversion therapy. In April, the Obama administration announced support for banning the practice for LGBT youth. The move came after a national petition urged a ban following the December suicide of a 17-year-old transgender girl who earlier took part in the therapy. California, Oregon, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., have all banned the practice for minors 

The SPLC is joined in the case by co-counsel Cleary Gottlieb Steen and Hamilton LLP and Lite DePalma Greenberg LLC. The lawsuits seeks a revocation of JONAH’s business license and restitution for plaintiffs, among other remedies.

Dinielli, SPLC deputy legal director, James Bromley, partner at Cleary Gottlieb, and Bruce Greenberg, partner at Lite DePalma Greenberg, will be part of the plaintiff team.  The plaintiffs will be testifying.