Eric Abramovitz is a successful clarinetist, who was a music student at McGill when he met Jennifer Lee, his soon-to-be girlfriend. This week, about five years after they first started a relationship and a couple of years after it ended, an Ontario judge ordered Lee to pay Abramovitz CDN$375,000 (USD$284,000).
Her infraction? Intercepting an email from a university professor saying Abramovitz had won a prestigious scholarship. She deleted that email, created a Gmail account and used to it create a fake email from the professor, telling her then live-in boyfriend that he was offered a spot at the school, but with virtually no financial backing.
She’d sent an email to the school as well, in the name of Abramovitz, turning down the real offer.
Despicable, to be sure. But $375,000? Let’s be clear about a few things here.
- Abramovitz finished his education at McGill. As the judgment states, he was already well-known as a prodigy, having won several competitions and been a featured soloist in orchestras.
- After his schooling, Abramovitz was able to secure an orchestra position without difficulty. In other words, he was able to continue with his art. He was not forced to get a new job or enter another industry. His career was far from ruined.
- When he received the fake “rejection” email, he didn’t question it. This was in 2014, and it was sent from a Gmail address. As a second-year student at McGill he should have expected a university address, ending with .edu, sent from the instititution. For such a high-value scholarship (full ride tuition plus room and board), it seems highly unlikely he would learn his fate over Gmail, right? Why did the judge not hold him accountable for his own stupidity?
- If he wanted the scholarship so badly, why did he not contact the professor in question, Yehuda Gilad, and ask why he’d fallen short? Presumably, Abramovitz still wanted a clarinetist career. Why did he not reach out to Gilad, with whom he’d had an invitation-only, in-person audition during the application process for this scholarship, to ask for mentorship advice and guidance?
- Lee did not deny Abramovitz the scholarship. She made him think he’d been rejected. She took nothing away from him in actual fact. It was always within his power to contact the school and get more details about his status. Even though she’d sent the email saying Abramovitz was turning down the scholarship, presumably the school would have made good on the original offer once the deception came to light.
“Mr Abramovitz was completely taken in by this deception. He believed that he had failed to win a place at Coburn. He did not have the financial resources to attend USC on the basis offered and so declined that offer (by response to the fake email address in Mr Gelad’s name). As a consequence, Mr Abramovitz lost the two year full-scholarship opportunity to study with Mr Gelad. He stayed in Montreal and completed his music degree at McGill.”
In other words, the judge in no way placed responsibility on Abramovitz for his failure to perform due diligence.
Let’s do a thought experiment, shall we? Let’s presume the musician was female. Let’s say her jealous, possessive live-in partner was male. Would the judge have been so quick to ignore her failure to push back against the rejection? I think not. I suspect, if she would have received a judgment at all, it would have been for nominal damages, for his bad conduct and nothing more.
In calculating damages, Justice D.L. Corbett undertook the usual math in these cases. Except Corbett relied on some pretty hefty assumptions. Taking the word of Professor Gilad, he agreed that Abramovitz would have accepted and finished the USC program if he’d known of his acceptance. As a result, he would have earned a higher salary at a more well-known orchestra than what he ended up making at an orchestra in Nashville. He granted the CAD$300,000 Abramovitz was seeking, not only for the loss of income but loss of educational opportunity. The additional $75,000 was for punitive damages, aggravated damages and legal fees.
There was no allowance made, by the way, for Abramovitz’s failure to perform his own due diligence on the rejection. He did not mitigate this harm, just let it happen to him. Typically, any damages you receive are reduced by the percentage at which you are said to be at fault. Because Lee did not defend herself in this suit — Abramovitz got a default judgment — we may never know her side of the story.
The math works, because you can make a reasonable argument that he lost about $300,000 worth of benefits because of never knowing he’d actually been accepted into the program.
Herein lies the problem with the law: it’s designed to put people back where they would have been had the harm not occurred. It’s not designed to create a just and fair society.
Think about what $375,000 would mean to anyone who sues over any harm. A car accident injury. Property losses. Fires, floods, discrimination in hiring, police abuse — the list is endless. All those people have to fight to even get a fraction of $375,000, and those people have suffered real harm. Unlike Abramovitz, who can still be a successful musician and have a good life doing what he does, these individuals have experienced ruin and devastation.
But it’s the way the law works — because the law is designed to keep people where they are. In effect, it props up elites and keeps the poor in their place.
Is that an exaggeration? No — it’s the way things are done. Even if Abramovitz never recovers the $375,000, his life is set. He can play clarinet for a living. He’s not getting a job at Starbucks to make ends meet. He’s not considering retraining to enter another profession. He can still do what he loves, because the law helps the elites stay in power, while getting a little bit of extra money for what really amounts to a minor career detour.