After seven years of fighting for months of unpaid back wages, 26 teachers at Shulamith, a local yeshiva for girls, reached a settlement with the school.
On Sept. 9, Kings County Supreme Court Judge Marsha L. Steinhardt approved a settlement agreement between the school and the plaintiffs over unpaid wages between the period of April and November 2010.
(Though 29 teachers originally signed on as plaintiffs, three teachers subsequently accepted payment and are no longer involved in the case.)
In the settlement, Shulamith agreed to pay the plaintiffs a total $550,000, an amount intended to cover the unpaid wages from 2010 (an amount that totals $294,827.31, according to Shulamith’s records), accrued interest on the unpaid wages, and four years of attorneys’ fees.
(Though the plaintiffs originally sought $929,213.28, an amount that included statutory penalties equal to 100 percent of the unpaid wages, which Shulamith disputes it owes, the teachers agreed to settle for roughly half that amount in order to end the case swiftly.) According to the court order, over half of the amount has already been paid.
The teacher’s attorney told The Jewish Week that he has received the remaining $200,219.36 and will distribute it to the plaintiffs this week.
“While we can’t force Shulamith to apologize to the teachers and their families for the ordeal the school unnecessarily put them through, we are very pleased with the favorable financial recovery we were able to obtain for them,” said Steven Landy, the principal of the firm representing the teachers.
In 2010, Shulamith was divided into two schools: the Shulamith School for Girls in Cedarhurst, Long Island, and the Shulamith School of Brooklyn. Each has its own board, administration, and finances. The building that housed the original school was put on the market. The sale closed in 2014, attorney Robert Tolchin, who began representing both schools in July.
In April of 2010, 80 teachers who worked at the original school in Brooklyn stopped receiving paychecks — without warning, the teachers said — because of the financial upheaval and reorganization that accompanied the split. The paychecks didn’t resume until the following November.
Many lost pensions and health care benefits, some buckled under mortgage payments and ran up crushing credit card debts to pay tuition bills and keep up with the expenses of daily life, the teachers said.
In 2012, 29 of the teachers filed a civil suit against the Shulamith School for Girls in Cedarhurst after over two years of trying to negotiate directly with the school. Several others privately pursued lawsuits to secure judgments; some were successful in small claims court, a handful of others filed their case with the New York State Department of Labor, which dropped the case after the 29 teachers filed the civil suit.
Still, many others chose not to join the lawsuit because, the teachers said, school administrators and area rabbis said that that taking the matter to civil court was not “halachically appropriate,” or sanctioned by Jewish law.
On April 27, Judge Steinhardt approved a settlement between the teachers and Shulamith “subject to (1) execution of a written agreement and (2) verification of D’s [defendants’] representations re: payments already made to TT’s [teachers],” according to court documents.
The teachers filed a motion to enforce the settlement in August after a delay due to a dispute about the amount of the payments already made.
In a telephone interview, Tolchin characterized the April 27 court document as “an agreement to agree” and said that Rabbi Perry Tirschwell, Shulamith School for Girls’ executive director, who was present at the April 27 court hearing, according to court documents, did not have the authority to enter into the Settlement Agreement, only the Shulamith board did. (Rabbi Tirschwell later told The Jewish Week he was in favor of the settlement.)
In July, the Shulamith School of Brooklyn unilaterally deposited funds to cover the initial wages into the plaintiffs’ accounts to cut down on accrued interest, Tolchin said.
The plaintiffs said the over $300,000 (amounts varied from a few thousand to $15,000 per person) distributed into their bank accounts did not include four years’ worth of attorney’s fees, accrued interest or penalties for the long-unpaid wages.
“We’re feeling grateful that this ordeal is finally over,” said Shoshana Kimmel, who taught science at the school for 30 years. “But we’re not going to believe it until the money is in our accounts. They’ve played too many games with us over the years to believe this is over until it’s really over.”
Barbara Stern, who taught English at Shulamith for 10 years, seconded the sentiment. “We’re just exhausted,” she said in a phone interview. “The papers have been signed and yes, we’re theoretically getting what we’re owed. But it has been so long that I don’t spend my days worrying about it. We did our jobs and we got shafted. I’m happy the payment is finally coming through.”
Both Kimmel and Stern said they believe the torrent of phone calls, complaints and questions the two Shulamith schools received after The Jewish Week’s first article covering the case helped expedite the resolution. (See “29 Teachers Battle Shulamith School For Wages,” Sept. 2.)
“The community was very upset when they read about this,” said Kimmel, who noted that she and her husband also personally received more than a dozen concerned calls from friends after the article was published.
Commenting on the September order to enforce the settlement, Tolchin said: “The case is over, the money has been paid, and everything has been resolved.”
Referring to his clients as “helpless volunteers,” Tolchin said the situation was caused by “very irresponsible dealings by the previous administration of the school, who haven’t been running the school in years.”
The current school leaders, he said, are “very decent people who give of their personal time to run the school and work out a terrible situation handed to them by previous administrations.”
The teachers were paid the remaining sum from the $1 million held in escrow for that specific purpose after the $20 million sale of the original Brooklyn Shulamith building in 2010, according to Alex Shtaynberger, chairman of the board at Shulamith of Brooklyn.
“With the consent of both Shulamith Long Island and Shulamith Brooklyn, funds were released from the escrow account and were used to pay the outstanding wage claims,” Shtaynberger wrote in an email to The Jewish Week. “We are pleased that they were able to resolve this matter.”
Payments to the teachers were processed through the payroll system of Shulamith School of Brooklyn, he wrote, a matter of “administrative convenience.” (In a September letter to the editor published in The Jewish Week, Shtaynberger stressed that the two schools are separate; several court documents filed by the defense identify the Brooklyn school as the “main culprit for non-payment,” and the “legal employer of the Plaintiffs,” though it was not named as a defendant in the original lawsuit.)
The teachers expressed frustration that the Brooklyn school has tried to distance itself from the controversy in recent months. “It is simply not true,” said Kimmel. “Both schools are equally responsible for what we have gone through. We just hope this is finally over.”