As explained in a previous Campbell Law Observer article, clients, or “consumers,” of the non-profit group Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (“JONAH”) sued its leaders. The lawsuit’s cause of action was based on consumer fraud because of the group’s misrepresentation on a “cure” for homosexuality. As a result, Ferguson v. JONAH was a unique case as it was the first time gay conversion therapy was attacked in the courts. In a landmark decision, the jury found that the founders and life coach of JONAH “engaged in unconscionable commercial practices” by misrepresenting their services.
In New Jersey, just as in every state and federal law, it is illegal to offer services through fraudulent or misleading advertisement
According the Southern Poverty Law Center (“SPLC”), counsel for the clients suing JONAH, the gay conversion therapy offered by JONAH, which included several different harmful techniques to reduce or alter same-sex attraction, was based on the scientifically disproven idea that homosexuality is a mental disorder. Therefore, this misrepresentation constituted consumer fraud, in violation of New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act (CFA).
In New Jersey, just as in every state and federal law, it is illegal to offer services through fraudulent or misleading advertisement. In New Jersey specifically, “advertisement” is defined as directly or indirectly attempting to solicit or induce “any person to enter or not enter into any obligation.” JONAH advertised that it could essentially “cure” a person’s sexual orientation through what it claimed to be scientifically proven services. However, the services offered—gay conversion therapy—were “discredited and highly criticized by all mainstream mental health and medical professional organizations” according to SPLC’s complaint. Therefore, SPLC alleged that JONAH engaged in deceptive and fraudulent business practices. The New Jersey jury agreed.
[APA expert discredited] JONAH’s practices comparing conversion therapy counselors “to amateur surgeons operating on the minds of young gay men”
At trial, SPLC attorney, Lina Bensman, attacked the credibility of JONAH’s practices and its leaders. Through evidence on cross-examination, Bensman brought in that Arthur Goldberg, co-founder of JONAH, was a disbarred lawyer who misrepresented himself to be a doctor and professional counselor. Bensman also shed light on the misrepresented “success rate” of JONAH’s treatments for homosexuality. She questioned Goldberg about an email that claimed “65 percent to 75 percent of clients ‘are substantially healed after two to five years’” through JONAH’s gay conversion therapy. On the stand, Goldberg admitted that the organization never performed any actual research to come up with those numbers.
SPLC also put on evidence through an expert testimony, former president of the American Psychiatric Association, discrediting JONAH’s practices comparing conversion therapy counselors “to amateur surgeons operating on the minds of young gay men.” Superior Court Judge Peter F. Bariso Jr. ordered on February 5, 2015, to exclude JONAH’s expert witnesses. On this basis, JONAH’s lawyers plan to appeal claiming “this is not justice.”
Not only did they find that JONAH’s so-called therapy was based on lies, but they also found that gay conversion therapy, as a service, constitutes unconscionable business practice
The New Jersey jury deliberated for three hours, and ultimately decided that JONAH’s former patients, the plaintiffs in the case, were entitled to damages based on JONAH’s consumer fraud. But there is a larger implication that stems from the jury’s verdict. Not only did they find that JONAH’s so-called therapy was based on deception, but they also found that gay conversion therapy, as a service, constitutes unconscionable business practice. Even though this decision is a milestone for the LGBTQ movement, SPLC attorneys said that they are not stopping here, and instead will be seeking an injunction to stop JONAH from continuing the harmful practices of gay conversion therapy.
With this landmark decision, the LGBTQ movement to eradicate harmful therapy claiming to cure homosexuality has increased its momentum. Not only have nineteen states introduced bills seeking bans on gay conversion therapy, but most recently there has also been federal backing on this movement. The White House back in April formally supported ending psychiatric treatments like JONAH’s ex-gay therapy. In May, the first national bill to stop gay conversion therapy was introduced in Congress. This bill, the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act, would protect the LGBTQ community from paid therapy claiming to alter sexual orientation, but also protect religious liberty and freedom of speech.