In March, Charles Cohen, the billionaire head of Cohen Brothers Realty, complained that it was “ridiculous how the news was portraying the pandemic.” Instead of allowing employees to work from home, he allegedly told one of his executive assistants “we have to be a soldier and soldier on.”
Two days later, he and his family took a private plane to Palm Beach, and later boarded a private yacht in the Caribbean, according to a lawsuit filed by three of Cohen’s furloughed employees. The wide-ranging suit alleges that the firm’s cavalier response to the pandemic culminated from a toxic work environment where employees were berated, belittled and in some instances, sexually harassed by other executives.
An attorney representing Cohen Brothers, Ivan Smith, declined to discuss specific allegations but called the lawsuit’s claims “totally baseless.”
One plaintiff, Evelyn Julia, a senior showroom leasing administrator, alleges that she was repeatedly subjected to unwelcome comments about her appearance from her direct supervisor, Stephen Fredericks, head of national leasing at Cohen Brothers. Fredericks would allegedly recount his sexual encounters to Julia and ask about her love life. According to the lawsuit, Julia would respond that such discussions were inappropriate.
She also alleges that he would touch her in “inappropriate and unwelcome ways,” including quickly kissing her on the cheek before he went on trips, leaving her no time to react.
The lawsuit notes that another former employee either filed a sexual harassment complaint against Fredericks or threatened to do so. The claims were settled, after which Cohen Brothers told employees that they needed to complete sexual harassment training — which Fredericks never did, according to the lawsuit.
Fredericks did not return an email or call seeking comment.
The lawsuit alleges that CEO Charles Cohen — whose firm’s portfolio spans 12 million square feet across New York, South Florida and Southern California — had a “a longstanding reputation for verbally abusing, screaming at, berating, belittling, and humiliating employees.”
Roseann Hylemon, who served as an executive assistant to Cohen and then to COO Steven Cherniak, claims that Cohen repeatedly said “I’m going to kill you” when she did something that displeased him. The reasons for his yelling varied, according to the lawsuit, but included when she ordered a hamburger for him that included cheese.
Another of Cohen’s executive assistants, Corinne Arazi, alleges that she was also berated and told that she was not permitted to leave her desk without permission — even to use the bathroom. Cohen did not respond to email requests for comment.
When the pandemic hit New York City in March, executives mocked and retaliated against the employees for expressing concern for their safety, according to the complaint.
No shutdown was in effect at the time, but the following week the company allegedly ignored Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s March 19 order to reduce in-office non-essential employees by 50 percent. The office remained open when the governor ordered all non-essential employees to stay home starting March 22, according to the lawsuit.
The firm’s human resources office emailed employees that day, saying that the governor’s order was ambiguous as to what qualified as essential, the complaint recounts. The email said the office would stay open, but employees could decide for themselves “whether or not to come to work being guided by the time off policies.”
There was considerable confusion over whether the real estate industry was “essential” under the state’s orders. Initial guidance and comments from the governor seemed to indicate that while some construction was essential, real estate was not. On April 9, however, the state clarified that real estate services were essential but that in-person activity was allowed only if “legally necessary.”
After an employee tested positive for Covid-19, the company allegedly failed to notify Julia, Arazi or Hylemon, who worked in close proximity to the employee. They only learned of his status from a text message he sent Arazi two weeks later, the complaint claims.
According to the lawsuit, the three women emailed company executives in April to say that after exhausting their paid time off, they planned to abide by the state’s stay-at-home mandate. They have been on unpaid furlough since and have not been told if they can return to work, according to their attorney.
In addition to damages to be determined by the court, the women are seeking compensation for unpaid overtime, according to the complaint.
An attorney for the women, Michael Grenert, said the claims share a common thread.
“You have a very wealthy company, and my clients were relatively low-level employees,” he said. “You have a kind of culture that looks at the lower level of the company, women in particular, as expendable.”