SYRACUSE — Attorneys for local landlord Douglas Waterbury and a Syracuse fair housing agency have been working toward a settlement in a federal lawsuit alleging widespread sexual harassment and fair housing violations against Waterbury.
First filed in August 2017, the lawsuit filed by CNY Fair Housing — a non-profit that works to ensure fair housing opportunities — and more than a half-dozen women accused Waterbury of making unwanted sexual advances and offering to exchange rent for sexual favors. Recent court filings show counsel for the parties involved in the case are continuing settlement discussions in accordance to a previously agreed upon framework.
The parties and their legal teams first started discussing a settlement more than a year ago.
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 lawsuit alleges the landlord preyed “upon women who need low-rent housing” and made discriminatory statements on the basis of sex.
Waterbury, who owns almost 50 properties in Oswego County along with several upstate venues such as the Sterling Renaissance Festival and Sylvan Beach Amusement Park, has denied the allegations.
CNY Fair Housing Executive Director Sally Santangelo said the parties are working toward a resolution of the case but didn’t explicitly rule out the possibility of a trial.
“We continue to move through the process,” she said Friday. “We, of course, always hope settlement is possible because trials are long and difficult, but we are continuing to move through the process.”
CNY Fair Housing is accustomed to cases taking a long time to reach resolution, Santangelo said, but when asked about the impact on the women involved she noted “it’s difficult to put yourself out there” and “it’s difficult when things take a long time to have that hanging over you.” Santangelo said CNY Fair Housing and the female plaintiffs “certainly want to see progress in resolving this.”
Waterbury hired a new legal team from Syracuse-based Goldberg, Segalla Law Firm in late 2018. Santangelo said the process was slowed somewhat as the new attorneys came up to speed. Messages left for Waterbury’s attorneys Friday were not returned by press time.
Claims from six women were included in the initial filing, with allegations of sexual contact and/or offers of sex in exchange for rent. In November 2017, an updated filing added two women to the complaint and included allegations of sexual assault.
Waterbury 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.
According to court documents filed last month, the plaintiffs in the case received more than 75,000 pages of financial records from financial institutions. Last month, attorneys made a request for additional time to U.S. Magistrate Judge Therese W. Dancks, who is overseeing the case, citing the “significant volume of financial information,” Waterbury’s new legal team and the number of parties involved.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs and defendants submitted a letter to Dancks last month saying “counsel for the parties have continued their settlement discussions and agreed upon a proposed framework to reach a potential settlement.”
Plaintiffs are scheduled to provide a complete settlement proposal to the defendants, including all monetary and non-monetary terms, on or before March 22. Defendants are scheduled to provide a response on or before April 19.
As part of the proposals, each party agreed to cite the specific financial records or other evidence to support their respective positions, which attorneys said would provide the parties “a basis to overcome the stalemate in previous settlement attempts.”
If not resolved by April 19, the parties proposed the court schedule a conference to assist in closing the gap between the parties. Attorneys requested that discovery in the case continue to be delayed while the parties continue settlement talks, however, if the parties do not reach an agreement discovery could continue as early as late April.
When asked about the possibility of a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), a legal tactic that has been criticized at times in recent years for silencing victims in sexual assault and harassment cases, Santangelo didn’t speak specifically about the Waterbury case but said the organization does not typically favor such agreements.
“As a general rule our goal as an agency is to make sure that there’s awareness of fair housing rights and the consequences for fair housing violations,” she said. “So as a general rule we do not like to see an NDA.”
All eight women named in the complaint were between the ages of 24 and 35 years old at the time of the filings. In the lawsuit, CNY Fair Housing claimed the eight plaintiffs were “just some of the many women who have fallen victim” to Waterbury’s “pattern of brazen sexual harassment.”
In interviews with The Palladium-Times, more than a dozen women said Waterbury propositioned them during apartment showings or while they were tenants of his in allegations that date back to the 1980s. A series of police reports obtained by The Palladium-Times contained allegations against Waterbury similar to claims in the lawsuit.
Santangelo 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.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) also filed a lawsuit against Waterbury in April 2018, alleging the landlord subjected female tenants and prospective tenants to “egregious sexual harassment in violation of the Fair Housing Act.” The DOJ allegations dated back to the 1990s, and named Waterbury, his wife and two affiliated companies as defendants.
The DOJ and Waterbury have also been ordered by a judge to continue attempts to reach a settlement, but the case was stalled due to the government shutdown earlier this year. A telephone status conference in that case is scheduled for May 1.