justice delayed

Dozens of Sex Harass Complaints Left Unresolved for Years at NYC Commission

Human Rights Commission Chair Carmelyn Malalis.
Human Rights Commission Chair Carmelyn Malalis. Photo: New York City Commission on Human Rights/nyc.gov

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Dozens of sexual harassment cases brought to the City Commission on Human Rights by employees at private firms have dragged on for years without resolution, data obtained by THE CITY shows.

Investigations of 44 complaints have stretched two years or more. The oldest open case dates to March 18, 2014 — nearly 5½ years ago, records indicate.

“It tells me if I wanted to come forward [with a complaint]… I wouldn’t expect to get justice through the city,” said Councilmember Helen Rosenthal (D-Manhattan), chair of the City Council’s Committee on Women and Gender Equity.

“Even understanding the complexity of cases … it should not take this long. And so in my mind’s eye, it’s a reflection of caseloads,” she added. “They need more resources so we can follow through on the promises that we’re making.”

Records show the backlog includes three open complaints filed more than five years ago, seven submitted four to five years ago, and 11 cases more than three years old.

That’s out of a total of 296 sexual harassment allegations filed with the CCHR by workers at private companies between Jan. 1, 2014 and March 4, 2019 — the date THE CITY filed a public disclosure request for the information.

The Commission has touted itself as a beacon of justice for victims, in part because of the city’s expansive human rights laws on what constitutes sexual harassment.

While the city’s law protects against a range of unwanted sexual behavior, the state until recently required that harassment be “severe or pervasive” in order to prove a claim, a higher burden of proof than New York City requires.

Last month, however, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation eliminating those restrictions. The measure also extended the statute of limitations for filing such claims from one to three years.

Federal law still requires the higher burden of proof.

‘Room for Improvement’

In April, THE CITY reported on a similar trend of unresolved cases at the City Commission on Human Rights when it came to a smaller pool of complaints of sexual harassment — numbering 17 at the time — filed against municipal workers.

The most recent data covering all types of cases handled by the Commission — which include complaints of discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations — shows the average age of an open complaint was 553 days in the 2018 fiscal year.

Upper West Side Councilmember Helen Rosenthal speaks at City Hall, Jan. 9, 2019.
Upper West Side Councilmember Helen Rosenthal speaks at City Hall, Jan. 9, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

That represented an increase of 63% from the 2016 fiscal year, when the average age of an open case was 340 days.

The agency has added a significant number of staffers in recent years under Commissioner Carmelyn Malalis in a bid to reduce a backlog of all types of unresolved cases, which stood at 1,829 at the end of the 2018 fiscal year, according to city data.

CCHR currently has 42 attorneys responsible for all types of investigations, agency officials said. That’s triple the 14 attorneys who handled probes in 2014.

At the same time, the number of all types of complaints filed has increased from 497 in the 2014 fiscal year to 805 in fiscal 2018, according to city data.

In January, CCHR launched a “gender-based harassment unit” that has two of its three positions for lawyers currently filled, agency officials said.

The officials attributed at least some of the time lag in closing cases to the thoroughness of the agency’s investigations. They also point to individuals and firms that seek to drag out probes by filing extensions and appeals.

“We closed more cases in 2019 than in any other year, and our average age of a complaint is on par with those filed at the federal level with private attorneys,” said Alicia McCauley, a Commission spokesperson. “We acknowledge that there is always room for improvement in the time it takes to process cases, and our creation of a gender-based harassment unit, as well as other targeted units, are moving the needle toward reducing case processing times.”

Of the 296 sexual harassment complaints at private firms fielded through March 4 by CCHR, 147 have been closed after an average of 18 months, according to the data.

More than half, 85, were closed administratively — meaning no determination was made by the commission.

Of the remaining cases, 53 were settled, eight had findings of “no probable cause,” and one was determined to be outside of the agency’s jurisdiction.

A Push for Quicker Resolutions

State Senator Alessandra Biaggi (D-The Bronx, Westchester) said investigations should take as long as necessary “and not a minute longer.”

She emphasized that the key factor is whether CCHR is in touch with complainants so they’re not left in limbo for years.

“How communicative are you being and is your [investigative] process communicated to those involved?” said Biaggi, who in February chaired the first joint legislative hearing on sexual harassment in the workplace in 27 years.

Of the recent settlements overseen by the Commission on Human Rights, one case yielded a $50,000 civil penalty in June against The Bronx’s Taylor Recycling Center, which is now called Vee Recycling Inc.

A former employee was awarded $60,000 for emotional distress damages in that case following her mid-2015 complaint of being verbally and physically harassed by the firm’s owner, according to an online summary of the case.

The owner, who isn’t identified by name, was required to make changes to the company’s work environment and to perform 50 hours of community service helping the homeless.

In 2018, a husband and wife were awarded $156,000 in a settlement with Kent Security of New York after the wife complained that her supervisor demanded sexual favors in response to her request for a transfer to a different site.

After she reported the alleged sexual harassment, she says the same company fired her husband. The settlement of that case yielded the city a $25,000 civil penalty as well.

Messages left seeking comment from officials at Vee Recycling and Kent Security weren’t returned.

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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