The city’s Department of Buildings was hit with a civil rights lawsuit Thursday alleging widespread racial and disability discrimination in the Office of the Buildings Marshal, which encompasses the agency’s building inspection units.
The suit, filed by nine Black building inspectors (and one white supervisor) in Manhattan Supreme Court, argues that white supervisors systematically favored white employees for promotions; denied Black employees access to city vehicles and reasonable accommodations due to disability; said the N-word around Black employees; and constantly wrote up Black employees on frivolous violations while white employees got off scot-free.
Anyone who came forward faced swift retaliation, the suit claims, and eventually many Black employees felt no alternative but to leave the agency.
“If these actions were taken in the Louisiana Bayou in 1963, they would still offend,” the suit reads. “But they did not occur in 1963, but rather in the present. And right here in the Big Apple. Indeed, these actions and this systemic racism was allowed to germinate and fester under the nose of the ostensibly progressive Mayor de Blasio administration for years.”
The plaintiffs allege that Black employees were passed over for promotions to supervisor in favor of white employees with fewer qualifications, some of whom hadn’t passed a civil service exam, and in at least one case were then forced to train them.
Two Black employees allege that when they brought their concerns to the Buildings Marshal, identified in the suit as Salvatore Agostino, the supervisor brushed off their concerns and demanded they address him as “sir,” which he never asked of white employees.
Agostino also allegedly told an employee that when it comes to promotions, “all that matters is whether I like you, not whether you do a good job.”
Agostino and other supervisors not only repeatedly denied Black employees disability accommodations, the suit says, but proceeded to retaliate against employees who deigned to ask for one. Arthur White was denied accommodations related to his diabetic neuropathy, wherein some diabetic persons experience severe nerve pain. Agostino denied a request for alternate work hours so White could attend therapy, and revoked his use of a city car to travel to appointments.
Eric Taylor, a plaintiff with a prostate condition, says he was fired after requesting time off, at the behest of his doctor. Supervisors allegedly cited his “failure to work effectively,” despite having received a perfect score on an employee evaluation a few weeks earlier.
Black employees were also made to work in the field during the pandemic when white employees could work from home, the plaintiffs say, and some were subjected to GPS monitoring.
The one white defendant is supervisor Michael Nitka, who was threatened with formal discipline for refusing to write up Black employees on bogus charges at the behest of the other supervisors.
Another supervisor, identified in the suit as Assistant Chief Inspector Jerry Wiggins, would explain his disciplinary actions against Black employees by allegedly rubbing the back of his hand with his index and middle fingers, which the plaintiffs allege was a thinly veiled racist gesture to reference their skin color.
Wiggins allegedly complained that Black supervisors at the agency had only gotten their job because of their skin color, complained that city cars smelled any time a Black employee used one, and boasted of being friendly with Neo-Nazis in his hometown of Wantagh on Long Island. Arthur White claimed that Wiggins forced him to pay parking tickets that he did not believe he had incurred.
Wiggins, who allegedly referred to Black subordinates as “jumpy or reactionary” and “lack the character and fitness to do the job,” supposedly boasted that employees at the unit’s Queens office had begun using the same hand-rubbing gesture to refer to Black employees as Wiggins used.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs are asking City Hall to investigate the allegations, terminate those alleged responsible, and protect the employees who came forward from retaliation.
A DOB spokesperson said that the department had not yet been served with the lawsuit but that it would review the claims when that occurs.
“Racism has no place in our city,” said spokesperson Ryan Degan. “The Department of Buildings is committed to a fair workplace, and we have a strong Equal Employment Opportunity policy to promote an inclusive work environment for everyone at the agency. We have not yet been served with this lawsuit, but we will review it carefully when it is received.”
A spokesperson for the Law Department, which represents city agencies in lawsuits, did not respond to a request for comment.