Chetrit accused of religious discrimination

Suit by former employee set to go to trial
By Candace Taylor | June 14, 2011 02:16PM

A groundbreaking lawsuit heading to trial in federal court claims that prominent developer Joseph Chetrit engaged in discrimination by allegedly firing an employee for his religious beliefs.

Les Kramsky, a former employee, claims in the lawsuit that Chetrit, an Orthodox Jew, only hired him because he believed that Kramsky, too, was Orthodox, then fired him once he discovered that he was not. Kramsky, who is Jewish but not Orthodox, also alleges that he was pressured to pray and participate in religious rituals while at work.

The trial is slated to begin June 27 before Judge Harold Baer of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The suit names the Chetrit Group as a defendant, along with the firm’s managing member, Joseph Chetrit, and his brothers Meyer, Juda, and Jacob, who are partners in the company.

“Following a pattern of religious discrimination, harassment and retaliation, [Kramsky] was terminated from his position on Jan. 20, 2010,” the complaint states. Kramsky is suing for $500,000 in lost wages and benefits, plus punitive damages.

The Chetrit Group, headquartered at 404 Fifth Avenue at 37th Street, is one of the city’s most prominent and active development firms. The company’s portfolio of Manhattan properties includes the massive rental apartment building 808 Columbus Avenue, the Empire Hotel on the Upper West Side, and 800,000-square-foot Bed Bath & Beyond building at 620 Sixth Avenue, which is currently for sale. The Chetrits also owns a stake in the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in Chicago, and reportedly signed a contract last month to purchase the iconic Chelsea Hotel for more than $80 million. 

But Joseph, the company’s head, almost never speaks to the press. As a result, his activities are often shrouded in mystery

The Chetrit Group declined to comment for this piece, but has denied Kramsky’s claims in court filings and asked that the case be dismissed.

Kramsky’s religious affiliation “played no role in my decisions about hiring, probation or ultimate termination,” Joseph stated in court documents.

The case is significant because it alleges discrimination between Jews, according to Manhattan employment attorney Jeffrey Goldman, who is not involved in the Kramsky case. While courts have long tackled discrimination between different religious, racial or ethnic groups, they have tended to overlooked discrimination within groups, such as blacks against blacks, or women against women, he explained.

“This case is going to be closely followed because of the ground-breaking significance of allegations of discrimination by one member of a protected class against another member of the same protected class,” Goldman said. “In other words, one Jewish person is claiming discrimination by another Jewish person based on the level of his religious observance. This is a relatively unique claim in employment law, particularly in the context of the different sects of Judaism.”

A real estate attorney, Kramsky had operated his own practice for 18 years before Joseph hired him as in-house general counsel in April 2009, the complaint says. Kramsky, who shut down his practice in order to take the job, was to be paid $150,000 per year, plus a $30,000 year-end bonus.

According to the complaint, Kramsky mentioned his son’s Bar Mitzvah while interviewing for the position. Kramsky later came to believe that this comment caused the Chetrits to think that he was an Orthodox Jew, and that “this was a main reason why he was hired,” the complaint says.

Shortly after Kramsky started work at the company, the complaint indicates, Meyer Chetrit asked Kramsky which temple he belonged to, and whether it was an Orthodox temple. Kramsky replied that it was not.

“Once it was discovered that Kramsky was not Orthodox, the partners treated him differently,” the complaint says. “Certain work, projects and assignments that would normally be assigned to [Kramsky] were now sent to outside, Orthodox Jewish counsel.”

The complaint also states that at the Chetrit Group, “the only parties close to the partners and trusted by the partners are Orthodox Jewish.”

Through his attorney, Jack Babchick of White Plains law firm Babchick and Young, Chetrit denied this claim in court filings, noting that the company’s office manager and other staff are not Jewish. He stated Kramsky was let go because he concluded that “it did not make economic sense to have a full-time ‘in-house’ attorney at Chetrit.”

Kramsky also claimed he was excluded from meetings and that the Chetrits spoke to their Orthodox employees in Hebrew “whenever the group did not want Kramsky to hear something.”

Moreover, Kramsky alleges in his complaint that he was made “very uncomfortable” by religious activities in the workplace. For example, an Orthodox rabbi who regularly came to the office repeatedly requested that Kramsky pray and put on tefillin, a set of leather boxes and straps worn by observant Jews during weekday morning prayers.

Kramsky’s attorney, Walker Harman of Manhattan’s the Harman Firm, said the case boils down to “another form of an old boys’ club.”

Kramsky and others “should be free from being asked to participate in religious activities in the workplace,” Harman added.

Kramsky’s suit also claims that he refused to represent the Chetrits in engaging in unethical activities, such as lying to a short-sale lender about the price of a property. He claimed the Chetrits also used company funds to “write checks to fictitious contractors or venders or write checks to themselves,” and used reserve funds and other monies from their real estate properties for personal use.

Kramsky also alleged that the company wrongfully treated him as an independent contractor rather than a full-time employee. A claim that the Chetrits also exposed Kramsky to second-hand smoke has been dismissed by the judge.

Harman said Kramsky declined to comment.