Michael Ferguson, et al., v. JONAH, et al.
JONAH Conversion Therapy Case
Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH) fraudulently claimed to provide services that “convert” people from gay to straight. These services, known as conversion therapy, have been discredited or highly criticized by all major American medical, psychiatric, psychological and professional counseling organizations.
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against the New Jersey conversion therapy organization for fraudulent practices. The lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey in 2012, charged that JONAH, its founder and a counselor violated New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act by claiming that their counseling services could cure clients of being gay.
The plaintiffs were three young men who were harmed by the practice and two parents who paid fees to JONAH for their sons’ therapy. Customers of JONAH’s services typically paid a minimum of $100 for weekly individual counseling sessions and another $60 for group therapy sessions.
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.
JONAH counselors also used techniques that left clients alienated from their families. These techniques encouraged clients to blame their parents for being gay, going so far as to have clients participate in violent role-play exercises where they beat effigies of their mothers.
“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 “It’s outdated … it’s confusing, it’s misleading.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.”
Aside from being junk science, conversion therapy encourages a climate of anti-LGBTQ bigotry.
JONAH, formerly known as Jews Offering New Alternatives for Homosexuality, was founded by defendant Arthur Goldberg, a former Wall Street executive and attorney who was previously convicted of three counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy to defraud the federal government. He was ultimately disbarred from being an attorney.
After a three-week trial in June 2015, a jury found that the services JONAH claimed could change clients from gay to straight was fraudulent and unconscionable. The jury ordered JONAH, its founder and a counselor to pay $72,400 to compensate the five plaintiffs for fees they paid to the group and for mental health counseling one of the plaintiffs needed afterward.
JONAH agreed to permanently cease operations and dissolve its corporate entity as part of a settlement that precludes an appeal of the jury’s verdict. Goldberg and counselor Alan Downing are also prohibited from engaging in any form of conversion therapy commerce in New Jersey. The proposed judgment included a $3.5 million award of legal fees. The plaintiffs agreed to accept an undisclosed portion of that award, but the defendants would be liable for the full amount if they violate the agreement.
Despite the ruling, the defendants continued to flagrantly violate the court’s injunction. A judge subsequently issued a 47-page written decision finding that the defendants violated the 2015 injunction and settlement agreement.
To “deter and punish” the defendants, the judge also barred JONAH’s founders, Arthur Goldberg and Elaine Berk, from serving as directors of certain New Jersey nonprofit corporations and ordered that Goldberg and JONAH pay attorney fees incurred in connection with plaintiffs’ efforts to enforce the injunction preventing the defendants from engaging in conversion therapy. The court also ordered the defendants to pay the full amount owed under the settlement agreement. An appellate court – and ultimately the New Jersey Supreme Court – upheld the decision.