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NYC’s Human Rights Commission Takes Years on Sexual Harassment Claims

New York City Human Rights Commission Chair Carmelyn Malalis testifies at City Hall on Feb. 28, 2018.
New York City Human Rights Commission Chair Carmelyn Malalis testifies at City Hall on Feb. 28, 2018. Photo: John McCarten/New York City Council

Sexual harassment complaints against municipal workers filed with the New York City Commission on Human Rights are often taking years to investigate — with eight ongoing cases that were filed more than two years ago, THE CITY has learned.

These include one open file that dates to Dec. 4, 2014, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Law.

The commission has fielded 17 complaints of sexual harassment against city government workers since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office on January 1, 2014, and has closed just three of those cases, the records show.

Eight of the open cases have been ongoing for between 889 and 1,601 days as of Tuesday, April 23. The remaining six were filed over a year ago.

“It’s not an encouraging thing to see,” said City Council Member Helen Rosenthal (D-Manhattan), chair of the Committee on Women and Gender Equity.

“I would want to learn more about why it takes so long,” she added. “But I will say that people, when this traumatic thing happens, they move on with their lives. They might leave the city workforce… if you wait too long, witnesses aren’t going to have the same memory of what happened.”

Of the three cases involving city workers closed by Human Rights investigators in recent years, one stemmed from a July 29, 2014 complaint. That case was administratively closed 1,604 days later — or after nearly 4.5 years.

The Unclear Meaning of ‘Closed’

And “closed” doesn’t even necessarily mean resolved.

“The above captioned case is hereby dismissed for administrative convenience because prosecution of the complaint will not serve the public interest,” reads the paperwork in that case, dated Dec. 19, 2018.

Another case was open for 18 months before authorities deemed it outside the commission’s jurisdiction and closed it in January 2017. A third case was substantiated and closed with a settlement in February 2017, after more than 2.5 years.

In response to a complaint of sexual harassment filed in July 2014 against two city Department of Transportation employees, the agency agreed to pay $43,000 to the complainant and to provide Equal Employment Opportunity training to all supervisors in its Traffic Operations Division.

City Hall.
City Hall. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The traffic division also was required to beef up its recording and reporting of instances of sexual harassment.

The vast majority of harassment cases against members of the city’s 300,000-plus workforce are handled by Equal Employment Officers assigned to each agency, who, under city guidelines, must complete an investigation and report the findings to the complainant within 90 days.

In recent years, NYC Commission on Human Rights officials have been touting the Commission as an “aggressive” enforcer of such complaints — including for a large number filed against employees at private firms.

Agency literature notes that the sexual harassment protections under city human rights laws are “among the strongest in the nation” because, unlike federal laws, they protect against any instance of unwanted sexual behavior and not only persistent harassment.

“Over the past three years under my leadership at the Commission, we have been particularly aggressive on sexual harassment cases,” NYC Human Rights Commissioner Carmelyn Malalis testfied at a February 2018 City Council hearing. “Gender-based discrimination is consistently one of the most common forms of employment discrimination the commission investigates.”

Other Cases Drag On, Too

Still, City Human Rights Commission records show that sexual harassment cases aren’t the only type of investigations that have been drawn out.

The average duration of all open cases at the agency in the 2016 fiscal year was 340 days. By fiscal 2018, the average had increased by 63 percent — to 553 days, or about 18 months, according to the most recent Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report.

Asked about the trend at a City Council budget hearing last month, Malalis said it was a reflection of more thorough investigations and the complexity of discrimination and harassment cases.

“We’re always looking for different ways that we can be addressing case-processing time,” she said.

“There is full understanding that sometimes justice delayed means that justice is not served,” she added. “[But] we want to make sure that we are holding open cases — as we should be, I believe — in order to make sure that we are not just giving a case kind of short-shrift.”

City Council documents show the NYC Human Rights Commission has been making structural changes to reduce the average caseload of its lawyers from roughly 80 to fewer than 50. The agency notched $1.9 million in additional funding in fiscal 2018 for 26 new positions in its law enforcement bureau.

In January, City Hall launched a new “gender-based harassment unit” at CCHR that added three lawyers as of late March to focus solely on sexual harassment cases — including in the private sector.

“While we ensure comprehensive remediation to victims, we continue to work on improving our resolution times by implementing different ways to resolve matters and meet urgent needs,” said Alicia McCauley, a CCHR spokesperson, adding that the new unit should help the cause.

Agency officials also said the number of sexual harassment investigations, mostly concerning private firms, has increased considerably amid the #MeToo movement — roughly doubling from 2017 to last year.

As of February 2018, the Commission had 132 open cases of sexual harassment against workers at private firms.

Attorney Zoe Salzman, a partner with Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP, said the timeline isn’t typically much faster for the private sector cases.

She filed a case with the CCHR in October 2017 that’s still pending on behalf of an employee at a legal recruiting firm who was allegedly subjected to persistent sexual harassment at the hands of her supervisor.

“It takes the commission a long time to investigate a case and reach the point where they’re going to determine probable cause or not,” said Salzman, whose firm is involved in a number of CCHR cases. “I think it’s a problem.”

But she noted the slow going appears to be rooted in under-staffing and resource shortages at the agency, something the recent structural and personnel changes could help alleviate.

“It’s not a lack of care, it’s just a question of capacity,” said Salzman.

Have you filed a complaint with the city’s Human Rights Commission? Either sexual harassment or for any other reason? We’d like to hear from you. Email tips@thecity.nyc or text, WhatsApp, Signal us at (718) 866-8674. If you want to share something more securely, visit our tips page.

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