SYRACUSE — The U.S. Department of Justice and Douglas Waterbury settled a sexual harassment lawsuit Thursday that calls for the local landlord to pay an additional $450,000 in damages and penalties.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the settlement, saying the landlord subjected women to sexual harassment for decades. Thursday’s settlement marks the end of two Fair Housing Act lawsuits alleging Waterbury sexually harassed female tenants and prospective tenants for nearly three decades at properties he owned in and around Oswego.
The federal lawsuit filed in 2018 alleged Waterbury subjected former tenants and prospective tenants of his properties to sexual harassment, including unwanted sexual intercourse, sexual advances and comments, groping or other touching of their bodies without consent and offers to reduce or eliminate security deposits and rent in exchange for sex.
Waterbury — who owns roughly 30 properties in the city of Oswego and several more throughout the county, along with the Sterling Renaissance Festival and Sylvan Beach Amusement Park — was accused in August 2017 of engaging in sex-for-rent schemes and harassing tenants over the course of several years in a lawsuit brought by local advocacy group CNY Fair Housing and eight women. That lawsuit was settled in June, with Waterbury agreeing to pay $400,000, hire a third party property management company and refrain from having contact with tenants or prospective tenants.
The DOJ lawsuit brings Waterbury’s total penalties to $850,000.
“No woman should have to endure harassment and discrimination to obtain housing,” said Grant C. Jaquith, United States Attorney for the Northern District of New York. “Landlords who sexually harass their tenants in our district will be held accountable under the Fair Housing Act.”
The DOJ announced a consent decree, which must be approved by the court, and which includes a $50,000 civil penalty and $400,000 in monetary damages to be paid to former tenants and prospective tenants who were harmed by Waterbury’s actions.
“The sexual harassment of the vulnerable female applicants and tenants in this case by their landlord is an egregious and intolerable violation of federal civil rights law,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said in a press release. “The Department of Justice will continue to pursue any depraved landlords and others who prey upon vulnerable women.”
According to the DOJ filing, Waterbury, his business partner, and two related entities operated what prosecutors called an extensive real estate business involving more than 50 residential rental properties in and around Oswego, and the landlord took or threatened to take adverse action against residents when they refused or objected to his advances. The DOJ allegations dated back to the 1990s.
The June settlement Waterbury reached with CNY Fair Housing and the eight women who accused him of harassment and varying unwanted sexual contact required the local landlord to pay the victims a total of $400,000, and refrain from having any contact with tenants or prospective tenants.
In that suit, CNY Fair Housing — a nonprofit agency that aims to eliminate housing discrimination — alleged Waterbury preyed “upon women who need low-rent housing” and aggressively pursued sexual favors from women seeking to rent apartments. The lawsuit accused Waterbury of making discriminatory statements on the basis of sex and retaliating against women who rejected his sexual advances.
According to CNY Fair Housing, Waterbury used women’s vulnerability and his control over their housing to force them into unwanted sex acts.
Executive Director Sally Santangelo said at the time CNY Fair Housing was pleased to have reached a settlement that gets Waterbury “out of the rental business.”
“We want to make it clear to housing providers that if you engage in sexual harassment of tenants, we will do everything we can to stop you and get you out of this business,” she said. “We’re certainly in a different era now — I hope we are in a different era now — where allegations like this will not be tolerated.”
The CNY Fair Housing lawsuit claimed Waterbury created a pervasive and hostile environment for women in desperate need of housing between 2012 and 2017. The initial lawsuit alleged the landlord made sexual contact and/or offers of sex in exchange for rent, and an updated filing in November 2017 added two women to the complaint and included allegations of sexual assault.
Santangelo previously noted CNY Fair Housing spoke with more than 40 women throughout their investigation of Waterbury, adding she wouldn’t be surprised if there are more people with similar experiences. She said one of the “particularly disturbing” aspects of the case was how many people seem to have known about Waterbury’s alleged actions for in some cases years prior to any action being taken.
In interviews with The Palladium-Times, more than a dozen women said Waterbury propositioned them during apartment showings or while they were his tenants in allegations dating back to the 1980s. A series of police reports obtained by The Palladium-Times contained allegations against Waterbury similar to claims in the lawsuit.
Under the settlement with CNY Fair Housing, Waterbury is prohibited from “having any involvement in the management or maintenance of rental housing properties,” including posting advertisements, showing units, repairing occupied units, collecting rent or contacting directly or indirectly any tenant or prospective tenant.
Waterbury is permanently barred from entering occupied rental properties, and must hire an independent management company approved by CNY Fair Housing. Following the settlement agreement, Santangelo said a primary concern of the agency was that the landlord not be allowed to have contact with tenants.
Allegations in the CNY Fair Housing suit included Waterbury coercing women into engaging in unwanted sexual acts, and the filing described two women who said Waterbury conditioned rent on their agreement to have sex with him in 2015. According to CNY Fair Housing, both plaintiffs, desperate for housing, “reluctantly acquiesced to his demands in order to lease an apartment from him.”
Waterbury previously denied all allegations, but in recent months attorneys representing the landlord did not return several requests for comment. Waterbury at one time made counter claims against some of the defendants, alleging four of the eight women collectively owed him more than $33,000 in unpaid rent. The court dismissed those claims in November 2018.
Sexual harassment is barred by the Fair Housing Act and considered by lawmakers to be discriminatory. Complaints can be filed even if the alleged victims acquiesced to sexual demands or experienced no loss of housing or funds, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division enforces the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination in housing.