Court triples Pils penalties to $190,000 in civil suit

December turned out to be an especially costly month for Rabbi Bentzion Pil, as a San Francisco U.S. district court judge and jury tripled the amount he owes to a former employee and the employee's counsel to more than $190,000.

In August, Pil, the founder and former director of the defunct Jewish Educational Center in San Francisco, was found guilty of shortchanging Ariel "Janos" Rosenbluth almost $43,000 in a two-year period, and then firing Rosenbluth when he asked for his back wages — for which Pil was fined an additional $23,000.

"I don't want to be a celebrity. I just want to have my privacy and get on with my life," Rosenbluth, who originally filed the civil suit in December 1996, said after the initial judgment. "I hate the idea of taking a fellow Jew to court and would have found other channels if it were possible."

A Dec. 12 ruling by Judge Samuel Conti granted Rosenbluth and his legal counsel additional funds, including:

*Nearly $13,325 in interest on the back wages dating back five years, when the case was originally filed.

*Liquidated damages — money paid by a party that has failed to meet agreed-upon terms of a contract — equal to the already assessed $42,275 in back wages and $23,000 penalty for wrongful discharge specified in August.

*"Waiting time" penalties of $3,000.

*Legal fees of $43,859 to the firm of Rosenbluth's attorney, William Flynn.

All told, the judge and jury found Pil owes Rosenbluth and his lawyer $190,733.64.

The rabbi has until Jan. 12 to file an appeal.

In August Pil's wife, Mattie, said the rabbi — who, claiming to be impoverished, represented himself in court — would only do so if he were able to locate a lawyer willing to take on the case pro bono. Calls to the rabbi's home, pager and cellular phone were not returned as of press time.

"The rabbi still has time to appeal. We have not received notice, but that doesn't mean he doesn't plan to," said Flynn. "It's not final until it's final."

Pil is serving the closing days of a nine-month sentence in a halfway house following his 1999 felony conviction of structuring $1.72 million in coin or currency deposits to intentionally evade federal reporting laws.

The Uzbekistan-born rabbi was also fined $10,000 for that crime, sentenced to three years probation and ordered by Judge Martin Jenkins to take a junior college course in American government because of his "challenging governmental authority," to undergo mental health counseling to "address the concerns this court has" about Pil's oppressive upbringing in the former Soviet Union, and to complete 100 hours of community service.

Rosenbluth, a Hungarian immigrant who came to the Bay Area from Israel, claimed he offered to settle his differences with Pil via a beit din (rabbinic court). However, he felt the deck would be stacked against him unless the proceeding were staffed by rabbis from the Satmar Chassidic sect. Pil refused, and Rosenbluth pressed on with his civil suit.

Pil's criminal case, the JEC's bankruptcy case and long-running investigations of both kept Rosenbluth's lawsuit in limbo for nearly five years.

When and if Rosenbluth sees any of the money Pil owes him remains to be seen. In August, Mattie Pil told the Bulletin that she is feeding her 10 children via food stamps and Rosenbluth continues to work several jobs.

"I still don't know if I'm going to collect a penny on this. I never thought it would drag on so long," said Rosenbluth. "I am sure that down the road there will be a possibility of collecting money, but that's not in the immediate or even near future. I have to work."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.