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Jury in groundbreaking SPLC suit finds gay ‘conversion’ program is unconscionable and fraudulent

In a landmark victory, a jury has found that a New Jersey provider of conversion therapy violated the state’s consumer fraud law by offering services that purport to turn gay people straight. 

In a landmark victory, a state jury in New Jersey found today that a “conversion therapy” program offering services it claimed could change clients from gay to straight was fraudulent and unconscionable.

The jury ordered JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing), the group’s founder and a counselor to pay $72,400 to compensate five plaintiffs for fees they paid to the group and for mental health counseling one of the plaintiffs needed afterward.

The SPLC filed the lawsuit – Michael Ferguson, et al., v. JONAH – in 2012. Brought under New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act, the case was the first of its kind nationally. It was heard before Superior Court Judge Peter F. Bariso Jr.

SPLC co-counsel were attorneys from Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, and Lite DePalma Greenberg LLC.

The case was more about exposing consumer fraud than obtaining monetary damages.

“This verdict is a monumental moment in the movement to ensure the rights and acceptance of LGBT people in America,” said David Dinielli, SPLC deputy legal director. “Conversion therapy and homophobia are based on the same central lie – that gay people are broken and need to be fixed. Conversion therapists, including the defendants in this case, sell fake cures that don’t work but can seriously harm the unsuspecting people who fall into this trap.

“We’re proud of our clients, who survived these so-called treatments and had the courage to call to account the people who defrauded them with their false promises.” 

The jury ruled 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. The plaintiffs are three young men who were harmed by the practice and two parents who paid fees to JONAH for their sons’ therapy, which cost $100 for weekly, individual sessions and another $60 for group therapy sessions.

During the trial, men who had participated in the program testified to the same pattern of feeling joy at discovering a program that would purportedly turn them straight only to endure disappointment, frustration and depression as it failed. JONAH’s treatment strained family relationships for some men, leading them to blame family members for their sexual orientation.

“I wouldn’t wish it on my enemy,” plaintiff Benjamin Unger testified. “It was very harmful. It made me very depressed, and people have a right to know about it.”

Unger was told that one of the reasons he was gay was because he was too close to his mother. In one exercise, he was encouraged to beat a pillow – representing his mother – with a tennis racket.

“I had a huge gash and my hands were actually bleeding from hitting it so much,” said Unger, now 27. “People were standing around me and supporting me and kind of egging me on and … that was probably the worst thing I did in the JONAH program as far as how it affected me and my family and how it affected me emotionally.” 

Unger described how he grew to resent his mother as a result of the treatment, stopped speaking to her for three months and even moved out of the house they shared. 

He eventually quit the program, but depression and anxiety left him virtually bedridden for three months. Unger later received treatment for the trauma from a clinical psychologist 

‘Worse than snake oil’

Conversion therapy has been discredited by virtually every major American medical, psychiatric, psychological and professional counseling organization. Many who have undergone the therapy have reported increased anxiety, depression, and in some cases, suicidal ideation.

In a landmark pre-trial ruling on Feb. 5, the judge excluded several leading conversion therapy proponents, including Joseph Nicolosi and Christopher Doyle, from testifying as defense experts. Bariso ruled their opinions were based on the false premise that homosexuality is a disorder.

In a blistering opinion that garnered international media attention, 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 around it – instead is outdated and refuted.”

According to testimony at the trial, one plaintiff was encouraged to undress and stand naked in a circle. At other times, a JONAH counselor encouraged three of the male plaintiffs to undress in front of a mirror and touch their genitals while he watched. Group activities were organized for clients to re-enact past abuse and take part in violent role-play exercises. Male counselors also engaged in and advocated “healthy touch” with young men, including prolonged cuddling sessions. 

“This is not legitimate therapy,” testified Lee Beckstead, a psychologist with expertise on sexual orientation change efforts and a member of an American Psychological Association task force that examined them. “It’s outdated … it’s confusing, it’s misleading. It’s even reckless. And it’s harmful. It’s worse than snake oil.” 

Beckstead testified that “healthy touch” is “a form of sexual abuse” and that nudity in one-on-one counseling sessions is “unconscionable.” He described one exercise that involved shouting homophobic slurs at a client as “sadistic." 

Plaintiff Chaim Levin had just turned 18 when he was encouraged to participate in “healthy touch” exercises in which participants were cradled like a baby by other men.

“It just didn’t seem like – for me, it didn’t feel right,” Levin, now 26, testified.

He was eventually coaxed into participating.

“I believe that what happened to me and my co-plaintiffs was very wrong,” Levin testified. “And I also think that – I think that the world needs to understand what conversion therapy actually is.” 

‘A really good salesman’

Throughout the trial, SPLC attorneys demonstrated how JONAH clients and their family members were led to believe the program was based on science when it was not. It was also shown how Goldberg, the program’s founder, was called “doctor” when the only degrees he held for such a title was a law degree – a juris doctorate – and an honorary doctorate in the humanities. Before founding JONAH, Goldberg was disbarred as an attorney after being convicted of and serving time in prison for felony mail fraud and conspiracy to defraud the federal government.

Bella Levin, Chaim’s mother, testified about the hope she felt after speaking with Goldberg.

“And I remember hanging up from him, and I told my husband, this is amazing,” she testified. “This – this guy is going to save Chaim. This guy is … this is just great. And I remember, like saying, whatever it costs, whatever we have to do, he has to go to this program, because he – he has it.”

She paid about $4,000 toward her son’s treatment only to watch him struggle with a roller coaster of emotions. 

“It was a mistake on my part that I did not question Goldberg too much,” she testified. “I mean, he was just a really good salesman. He just knew how to tell me that – that he had therapies that would work, that – that would change him.” 

When asked on the witness stand why she joined the SPLC lawsuit, the mother of six gave a succinct answer.

“Goldberg lied,” she said.  “He promised me something that was just so far from the truth.”

Sheldon Bruck, whose mother is a plaintiff, also believed he had found a solution when he discovered JONAH – describing it as akin to finding a “golden ticket” to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. When he spoke to Goldberg, he was encouraged even more. 

“And he told me everything that I wanted to hear and everything that I hoped for,” he testified. “So I thought like I just broke some sort of stellar curse that I have on top of me. I was so excited.”

He eventually realized what other JONAH clients discovered.

“I ended it because I realized that it wasn’t a legitimate form of therapy and I couldn’t – it didn’t make any sense.… I came to realize that I was being taken advantage of and that my sexuality is not something that is able to be changed,” he testified. 

‘Sending a message’

In addition to paying treble damages to compensate the plaintiffs for the fees they paid for therapy, the defendants were ordered to pay attorneys’ fees.

The judge will consider whether to cancel JONAH’s business license, among other remedies, in the coming weeks.

But the verdict means even more for the SPLC’s clients: It means exposing conversion therapy practices to the light of day. It means preventing other people struggling with their sexual orientation from being lured into a dangerous world of junk science that can cost them their health, their peace of mind and their savings.

The case has helped spark legislation in Congress to protect consumers from conversion therapy nationwide. New Jersey, California, Oregon and the District of Columbia have already enacted laws to protect minors from conversion therapy practiced by licensed therapists, and a number of states are considering similar laws.

“Seven years ago, I was subjected to abusive, harmful practices by JONAH that I thought would remain secret and unnoticed despite how destructive they were – in part because they thrived on this secrecy in their so-called therapy practice,” Chaim Levin said after the verdict. “Now the world knows about their destructive, refuted practices.”