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Agency finds probable cause in discrimination suit against Bespoke

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The New York State Division of Human Rights has found probable cause regarding a discrimination complaint filed by former Bespoke executive Jarret Willis against the brokerage and its founders, Cody and Zachary Vichinsky.

The investigation stems from a complaint Willis, who is Black, filed in February, in which he alleged that another employee addressed him by the N-word and that various employees referred to him as Jafar, the villain from “Aladdin,” in a derogatory manner.

Willis also alleges the word “kike,” an anti-Jewish slur, was frequently used at the firm’s Hamptons office and that the brokerage withheld from him hundreds of thousands of dollars in commissions.

The department is pushing for a hearing, according to a legal filing obtained by The Real Deal, calling one necessary to settle “material issues of fact” that the investigation could not resolve.

The report also states that “questions are raised as to the accuracy of the claims.”

“It must be noted, however, that the record also gives rise to the appearance that a personal dispute between complainant and both respondent Vichinskys occurred contemporaneously such that the allegations comprise situations and interactions that, while now held to be discriminatory, may not have originally been viewed in that manner,” states the report.

Willis’ attorney, Adam Leitman Bailey, said they “could not be happier with the results” of the investigation.

“I’ve been doing this a long time but I don’t usually get probable cause findings this resounding in favor of [the] litigant,” said Bailey. “There’s not one claim they found was disingenuous or didn’t exist, there’s not one claim they dismissed or did not take.”

Bailey said Willis has since been paid his outstanding commissions.

The finding of probable cause, according to Bailey, means the government is willing to try Willis’ case should he elect not to pursue a private action. The lawyer added that the division skipped the typical mediation process in favor of a hearing, which he deemed a further sign of the “egregiousness” of Bespoke’s alleged transgressions.

In a statement in March, Bespoke “unequivocally” denied the claims. Asked to comment Thursday, Cody Vichinsky and his lawyer declined.

Willis’ complaint, filed in New York Supreme Court, alleges that another employee, Lisa Kling, addressed him by the N-word. The complaint provided text messages between the two as evidence. Kling was not disciplined for the behavior and was promoted to Cody Vichinsky’s personal assistant, according to the complaint.

After Willis temporarily moved to Bespoke’s Florida office, employees there allegedly referred to him as Jafar, which he alleges was a derogatory reference to “the manipulative, brown-skinned magician” in the Disney movie “Aladdin.” His work account was allegedly set to “Jafar24!”, which led to his resignation. He also alleges he wasn’t given a desk because of his race.

Willis also contends he was shown a racist Instagram video and was excluded from the Hamptons Classic, a major social bash held each summer in Bridgehampton, where Bespoke rented a booth and to which all employees except him were allegedly invited.

He further contends that “kike” was frequently uttered in the Hamptons office, prompting another employee, Harlan Goldberg, to file his own complaint against the company.

According to the investigation, Willis alleged that the power imbalance between him and the Vichinskys led to “feigned acceptance of, and feigned participation in, their bigotry.”

Although Willis initially viewed the Vichinskys as friends, he told investigators their relationship soured in 2019, when, during Cody Vichinsky’s bachelor party, Zachary Vichinsky remarked to Willis that his brother “spends money like a [N-word].”

At that point, Willis decided he would simply “go through the motions” of friendship with the two so as not to jeopardize his employment, according to the report.

Willis says he believed there was a sexual relationship between Cody Vichinsky and Kling, causing him to tolerate her behavior for the sake of his employment.

He says he was stripped of his position as vice president of Bespoke Parallel, a division of Bespoke, in April 2022, due to his race, after having repeatedly not been informed of showings.

Bespoke told the investigators that Willis deleted his own texts when submitting exchanges between himself and Kling as evidence of her discriminatory behavior. The omissions demonstrate the deceptive nature of the allegations, according to the brokerage.

Investigators, in their report, said they found some issues with Willis’ story.

“The record reflects, and [Willis] admits, that such language had been used throughout the five years preceding when he first claims to have taken issue with it,” reads the report. “Moreover, this timeline contravenes the assertion that [he] only engaged in this conduct to ingratiate himself with respondents.”

Bespoke portrayed a starkly different reality to investigators, calling the complaints “nothing more than a shakedown against a former employer who treated him like family.”

According to the investigation, numerous correspondences support Bespoke’s position that Willis was, in the Vichinskys’ words, “the one engaging in offensive language and behavior while expressing immense gratitude for his position.”

If anything, the Vichinskys say, because of their friendship, they gave preferential treatment to Willis, who before working at Bespoke attended Cody Vichinsky’s wedding in 2014. They say Willis was the firm’s highest compensated agent when he resigned. They also assert it was “well-known” that Willis and Kling were friends.

Bespoke said Willis did not need a desk due to the nature of his job and because he had a physical presence at a nearby location. It also pointed to his promotion to an executive level as evidence of his favorable treatment.

Bespoke provided investigators with messages that show Willis routinely referred to himself as “Jafar,” including that he would “Jafar” clients, meaning “attempt to manipulate them,” according to the Vichinskys.

Bespoke also alleged Willis used racially offensive language in referring to himself and Bespoke clients, and said that he never complained of discrimination or disparate treatment during his tenure with the brokerage.

It also pointed to a text Willis sent three weeks before instructing the Vichinskys to communicate with his attorney rather than him, in which he wrote he was grateful “to have you and your beautiful families in my life.”

But investigators also were dubious of Bespoke’s explanation for supposedly failing to pay Willis his commissions.
“Given the context alleged to exist with respect to all of [Willis’] assertions, the record supports the contention that respondents’ proffered reasoning amounts to pretext for discriminating” against him, the report says. “Because the Division is unable to discern the specific circumstances surrounding the alleged acts of discrimination, nor assess credibility at this time, a hearing on this matter is warranted.”

Read the original article here.

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