City Employee Bias Suits on the Rise

City Employee Bias Suits on the Rise

Posted By Dan Flanzig || 6-Jul-2011

City Workers' Bias Suits Rise, Despite Softer Bloomberg Tone

The number of discrimination cases filed by city employees in New York has risen even as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has adopted a far less adversarial tone than his predecessor did in dealing with the city's vast work force.

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Charles, left, and Christopher Castro, brothers in a lawsuit filed by minority police officers during the Giuliani years, have benefited from the Bloomberg administration's propensity to pay settlements in bias cases.

Multimedia
Daniel Barry for The New York Times

Yolanda Gonzalez, a former administrative aide for the Police Department, alleged sexual harassment by a co-worker and received a city settlement of $185,000.

During Mr. Bloomberg's first two terms in office, the number of lawsuits by employees accusing the city of discrimination was 12 percent higher than the number during Rudolph W. Giuliani's two terms as mayor, according to government data furnished under Freedom of Information Law requests.

The legal claims came from employees in a wide range of departments and concerned a diverse array of alleged biases: in one six-week period from late 2008 to early 2009, the city paid $300,000 to settle a claim from a male police officer who alleged that his female supervisor had sexually harassed him; $225,000 to settle a sexual harassment claim from a secretary at the Department for the Aging; and a total of $316,500 in seven settlements for grievances stemming from demotions or alleging racial bias and age discrimination.

Critics of the Bloomberg administration say the heavy caseload and the settlement payouts raise questions about the city's efforts to tackle discrimination.

"Some people may think that this is a surprise, given Bloomberg's reputation for presiding over a quote calmer city unquote," said Craig Gurian, a former counsel to the New York City Commission on Human Rights who is now executive director of the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York.

"But there has always been a tremendous disparity between perception and reality," he added, "and the reality is that this administration is just not serious about civil rights enforcement."

But Michael A. Cardozo, who as the city's corporation counsel represents the Bloomberg administration in legal disputes, argued that the number of discrimination complaints was relatively small - each year, about 100 of 280,000 New York City employees file lawsuits against city agencies alleging discrimination in the workplace.

He also noted that the municipal work force was larger than it was through most of Mr. Giuliani's tenure as mayor.

Mr. Cardozo suggested that the increase in discrimination claims reflected an ailing economy, as well as a growing willingness among employees to speak out and seek legal redress - as encouraged by the administration - without fear of retribution.

"Whether you're a warm and fuzzy mayor, or a less warm and fuzzy mayor, someone is always going to feel aggrieved," Mr. Cardozo said.

Yolanda Gonzalez, a veteran administrative aide for the Police Department, was one of the aggrieved.

Ms. Gonzalez filed a lawsuit in 2007 alleging that she had been sexually harassed by a co-worker from 2003 to 2005. She also alleged that after she filed an official complaint, her supervisors retaliated by giving her poor job evaluations and menial tasks. The city settled the case for $185,000 in 2008.

"It was never taken seriously, and I felt retaliation by management," Ms. Gonzalez, now 48, said in an interview.

Ms. Gonzalez, who is no longer employed by the city, said she had hoped that the workplace culture would improve under Mr. Bloomberg and his police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly.

But it is the person Ms. Gonzalez accused of harassment, and not Ms. Gonzalez, who remains employed by the city, according to personnel records. "There's no closure," she said. "This was all under Bloomberg's watch."

The Bloomberg administration has dealt with many of the discrimination claims by paying settlements, rather than allowing cases to go to trial. From 2002 to 2009, the city settled over 400 employee discrimination cases, for more than $69 million.

That is more than double the amount of money paid out by the Giuliani administration, but two-thirds of the sum that the Bloomberg administration paid out was for two discrimination claims that originated during the Giuliani years.

Cases that began under Mr. Giuliani made up one-third of all cases settled during Mr. Bloomberg's first two terms, and there are five remaining cases alleging discrimination during the Giuliani administration. Given the pace of litigation, it seems certain that dozens of Bloomberg-era cases will remain unresolved when his third term ends in 2013 and will be left to his successor to resolve.

Despite the caseload, the city's Equal Employment Practices Commission, which conducts audits of city agencies to help identify potentially discriminatory practices and prevent lawsuits, has lost roughly half of its auditors under Mr. Bloomberg.

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