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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

School For Disabled Sues Two Chabad Schools In Alleged Kohl's Contest Fraud

Facebook competition has local school suing other schools
Former allies in $500,000 contest now locked in litigation

A Facebook contest has turned into a $500,000 lawsuit pitting a Coral Springs private school for the disabled against two religious schools in Broward County.

In the race to win a grant, officials at Abi's Place, a school for 10 moderately to severely disabled children, say they were betrayed by their counterparts at Hebrew Academy Community School in Margate and the Rohr Bais Chaya Academy in Tamarac.

Abi's Place is accusing the other schools of violating Florida's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act in the heat of the Kohl's Cares Facebook contest for non-profit schools.

The competition—sponsored by Kohl's Department Stores—promised $500,000 grants to each of the 20 schools nationwide that received the most votes through Facebook.

Abi's Place founder Danielle Zimmerman said that in the contest's waning days, the other two schools broke their alliance to gather votes together and left her school out in the cold. Hebrew Academy Community School and Rohr Bais Chaya Academy ended up finishing in the top 20 and each getting $500,000, while Abi's Place finished 21st and got no money.

The Broward Circuit Court lawsuit filed by Abi's Place demands the other two schools pay it the lost grant money.

"I want the community to know that what was done was very shady," Zimmerman said.

An attorney for Hebrew Academy Community School and Rohr Bais Chaya Academy said there was never any contract between the schools and the two Jewish schools were helping Abi's Place as a mitzvah—a good deed.

Throughout the contest, there were constantly shifting alliances with schools across the country, said Dan Kaskel, the attorney for the two academies.

"It's unfortunate because it was a favor extended," Kaskel said.

The Kohl's Cares contest allowed each person on Facebook to vote 20 times for schools to win one of the $500,000 grants. A maximum of five of those 20 votes could go to a single school. That prompted schools to build alliances to gather votes for each other.

Zimmerman said one of her school's co-directors was going around a Coral Springs coffee shop with a laptop last summer trying to get votes when she encountered a rabbi from one of the Jewish academies. He proposed an alliance, Zimmerman said.

She said that for the next two months, Abi's Place staff and parents worked tirelessly to get votes--setting up at malls, sporting events, movie theaters and college campuses.

"It was emotionally, physically, mentally draining and we all worked together," Zimmerman said. "We (the schools) didn't make a move without each other and we called each other every night…We had schedules, plans of actions and (coordinated) how many computers we have."

But less than three days before the contest ended and with Abi's Place at 20th, Zimmerman said the other two schools announced they were through working with her school. Zimmerman's attorney, Scott Topolski, said Abi's Place was left with no options.

"If the other schools did it a month and a half or two months earlier, it would have given my client the ability to form alliances with other schools," Topolski said. "It was way too late at that point."

Kaskel said Hebrew Academy Community School and Rohr Bais Chaya Academy worked with about 10 other schools across the country to get votes. While Abi's Place has 10 students and has only been open for three years, the two Jewish schools have about 400 students combined, he said. Hebrew Academy opened its doors in 1984, and Rohr Bais Chaya was founded in 2003.

"All along my clients were giving (Abi's Place) a hand," he said.

The academies were always honest with Abi's Place, telling Zimmerman and her staff that they needed to step up in getting signatures, Kaskel said. When that didn't happen, Hebrew Academy and Rohr Bais Chaya Academy had no choice but to part ways with Abi's Place, Kaskel said.

Kaskel said the Kohl's grants provided much-needed infusions of money to the Jewish academies as well as "new energy and enthusiasm."

More than 11 million votes were cast in the Kohl's Cares contest with Hebrew Academy finishing 14th and Rohr Bais Chaya coming in 15th.

Kohl's media relations people did not respond to questions regarding the contest.

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