Construction worker accuses JDS Development of discrimination

Claims supervisor repeatedly used racial slur, threatened him with knife

New York /
Aug.August 03, 2021 01:00 PM
The foreman's work for JDS included at its 9 DeKalb Avenue megaproject, a 1,066-foot condo and apartment tower that is set to be the borough’s tallest. (iStock, SHoP, Getty)

The foreman’s work for JDS included at its 9 DeKalb Avenue megaproject, a 1,066-foot condo and apartment tower that is set to be the borough’s tallest. (iStock, SHoP, Getty)

A construction worker assigned to JDS Development projects filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the company, saying a supervisor repeatedly used a racial slur against him and once menaced him with a knife.

Christopher Otigho, who is Black, said he had to endure a hostile work environment where he was repeatedly subjected to “severe and pervasive discriminatory conduct and comments” by his supervisor, identified as Cristino Torruella. After the final incident — in which Torruella was arrested — Otigho was fired, according to the federal lawsuit.

The suit names as defendants Torruella — who had been a JDS employee — JDS Development, company founder and CEO Michael Stern and JDS project manager Michael Jones. The suit identifies Otigho as a JDS employee, but a source with knowledge of the matter said he was a subcontractor from Tradesmen International, a firm that hires out construction workers.

According to the filing, Torruella called Otigho the N-word on multiple occasions in front of other workers on the construction site over the course of more than a year, beginning in June 2018. The complaint cites 20 separate instances in which the racial slur was allegedly used. The lawsuit identifies Torruella as “Caucasian,” though a source also disputed that categorization.

Jones failed to take any action to “prevent or correct the discriminatory action and hostile work environment” after Otigho reported the incidents to him, the suit claims. Jones is also identified as “Caucasian” in the filing.

Otigho’s work for JDS included at its 9 DeKalb Avenue megaproject, a 1,066-foot condo and apartment tower that is set to be the borough’s tallest. The suit appears to misidentify the address, calling it 90 DeKalb Avenue.

Joan Gilbride, an attorney representing all the defendants except Torruella, wrote in a court filing that the allegations against her clients were not true. She added that the statute of limitations had expired on many of the alleged incidents before the lawsuit was filed. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires claims to be filed within 300 days of alleged discriminatory action, according to her filing. Gilbride of Kaufman Borgeest & Ryan did not return messages seeking comment.

Gilbride also said the complaint had failed to connect Stern to those alleged incidents of discrimination, other than his role as head of JDS. Stern did not comment.

Attempts to reach Torruella were unsuccessful. Tradesmen International did not comment.

In one alleged incident, Torruella approached Otigho and another Black worker and used the racial slur, the suit contends. When Otigho asked him to stop saying the word, Torruella replied: “Oh, so now you’re Malcom X. Now you’re a civil rights movement leader now. You people want to change everything,” the filing said.

In the final alleged instance in October 2019, the filing said Torruella took a knife from his pocket, waved it at Otigho and uttered the racial slur. The suit claims NYPD officers arrested Torruella for that incident and that criminal charges are pending in Kings County. The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office confirmed the existence of the charges; the outcome was unclear. Torruella, who was a superintendent/laborer, was fired from his job at JDS following that incident.

Otigho had also filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in early 2020, according to the complaint.

Otigho, who said in the suit he was hired in April 2017 as a laborer then promoted two months later to “laborer foreman,” was also fired after that incident involving the knife. A source close to the matter called it an altercation between the two men. As a result of his dismissal and the alleged discrimination, Otigho “felt extremely humiliated, degraded, victimized, embarrassed and emotionally distressed,” the lawsuit states. The filing adds he had to endure financial hardship and damage to his professional reputation.

Otigho’s lawyer, Zachary Holzberg of Derek Smith Law Group, did not return phone and email messages seeking comment. Otigho’s complaint seeks unspecified damages.

The case was originally filed in May in the Southern District in Manhattan. In July, it was transferred to the Eastern District in Brooklyn. A preliminary court date is scheduled for this month.





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