A 70-year-old Santa Fe man who gained national notoriety a decade ago for suing his former friend and neighbor — saying electromagnetic radiation emitted by her cellphone negatively impacted his health — is himself being sued.
Author and activist Arthur Firstenberg’s unsuccessful 2010 legal battle to collect more than $1 million in damages from a friend who rented the home next to his was featured on ABC News and in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
That person has since moved, but now the woman who owns the home is suing Firstenberg, saying the litigation, and his trespassing and harassment of her and her tenants, have deprived her of being able to enjoy or profit from her two-bedroom dwelling in the desirable Guadalupe District.
In a complaint filed Dec. 4 in state District Court, Robin Leith claims that Firstenberg has used a utility easement as an excuse to enter her property to peep into the windows of her home, dug up gas lines on her property and confronted her and her tenants “in a deranged and combative manner.” Firstenberg’s actions have made it difficult for Leith to rent, sell or occupy her home on Casados Street, according to the complaint.
She’s asking the court to award her actual and punitive damages and to order him to find another way to read his utility meters — either by hiring someone or installing a power pole on his own property — and to stay off her property.
Firstenberg said Leith’s lawsuit is an attempt to relitigate issues the court decided years ago so she can further develop her property. He said relocating the utility easement is something Leith has been attempting to do since before he became her neighbor.
“These are the exact same allegations she made in 2012 or 2013 that the court did not give much credit,” Firstenberg said last week. “I have tried my best to make peace with this woman over the years and she won’t have it. She just wants me gone.”
Firstenberg said he intends to file a motion asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that the issues it raises were already litigated as part of a counterclaim she filed during the litigation of his initial complaint against Leith and her former tenant, Raphaela Monribot.
Firstenberg denied using the easement to peer into Leith’s house, something her lawsuit says has happened repeatedly between 2016 and 2020.
Leith declined through her attorney to be interviewed for this story.
Court records show one of Firstenberg's other neighbors filed an application for a restraining order against Firstenberg in 2017, telling the court, “I want the defendant to stop looking into my property — stop being a ‘peeping tom.’ ” The judge denied the request.
Leith’s new filing accuses Firstenberg of more recent wrongdoings. For example, her lawsuit says he dug up a gas line on her property in August, delaying a construction project and preventing her from renting the property for several more months.
“I did no such thing,” Firstenberg said.
Firstenberg — who once sought to have the city prevent a different neighbor from using “noxious” paint on a nearby fence — said it’s Leith who has been a nuisance to him, not the other way around.
Her construction project resulted in the gas being shut off to his home for two months, he said, and her plumber once severed his phone line, causing him to lose service.
“She’s done all these things to me and she is taking me to court?” he said. “I can hardly believe it.”
Firstenberg — who has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Cornell University and has authored two books on electromagnetic radiation and health — is a familiar face at City Hall as a result of his ongoing activism against the widespread implementation of wireless internet, among other things.
He’s been the plaintiff in eight unsuccessful civil filings since 2010, according to court records, suing various entities including the city of Santa Fe and several cellphone service providers, all but one of them related to his crusade against wireless technology.
George Johnson, a science writer for the New York Times, questioned the soundness of Firstenberg’s conclusions regarding the harmful effect of electromagnetic radiation in a 2015 story he wrote about Firstenberg’s battle with Monribot headlined, “When Science is Lost in a Legal Maze.”
“The electromagnetic signals that go from cellphone to cellphone and computer to computer lie quietly on the spectrum between radio broadcast waves and the colors of light. From the perspective of science, the likelihood of the rays somehow causing harm is about as strong as the evidence for ESP,” Johnson wrote. “But the law proceeds by its own logic, in which concepts of evidence and proof take on meaning so their own.
“In a saner world, where science and the law meshed more precisely,” Johnson wrote, “a case like Firstenberg v. Monribot would have been dead on arrival.”
While a judge did ultimately dismiss Firstenberg’s case, it dragged on for about five years in part because he appealed the ruling to the state Court of Appeals, which upheld the dismissal.
Santa Fe attorney Christopher Graeser, one of the lawyers who defended Monribot in the lawsuit Firstenberg filed against her, said in a recent interview he and co-counsel Joseph Romero represented Monribot pro bono — writing off about $200,000 in legal fees — because they felt it would be an injustice for her to pay to defend herself against his claims.
“All I can say is good luck to both parties,” Romero said when asked to comment on the Leith lawsuit. “They are in for a fight. Arthur is a tough out. … He is what we call a sophisticated pro se [self-representing] litigant. He’s a very intelligent man and very competitive. … He knows his way around the courtroom and he can represent himself in court.”
Firstenberg said that while he did represent himself on the appeal in the earlier case, he also paid lawyers to work on the lawsuit and doesn’t relish having to do so again.
“I’m tired of it,” he said. “I don’t want to be in court again. I don’t want to have to hire lawyers. Apparently they worked for free for her, but I had to pay my lawyer,” he said.
He declined to say how much the previous litigation cost him.
Firstenberg said he doesn’t believe Leith is being honest when she claims to have had trouble renting or selling her property despite having marked it down to below market value as she alleges in her complaint. He said people have told him they’ve contacted her about the house but she doesn’t call them back.
“If the court doesn’t dismiss it, I’ll decide then what to do,” he said. “I would like peace with this woman. I would like to be a good neighbor. I can supply her with people that would happily rent that property. But she won’t talk to me.”
Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the following correction. A previous version of this story incorrectly reported Firstenberg was the plaintiff in more than a dozen lawsuits as part of his crusade against electromagnetic radiation. Firstenberg was the plaintiff in eight cases, not all having to do with electromagnetic radiation, one was related to a bridge project. The other cases in which he was listed as the plaintiff are appeals.
The story also said a tenant of Robin Leith — the woman suing Firstenberg — had sought a restraining order against him, the person who sought the restraining order was Firstenberg's neighbor but not Leith's tenant.