By Kevin Deutsch
A Bronx woman is suing the city’s Department of Social Services and a former executive deputy commissioner, claiming he groped and sexually harassed her – and that DSS higher-ups retaliated when she filed a complaint about his inappropriate touching.
Jacqueline Torres, a former special assistant in the DSS human resources department, alleges in the lawsuit that Michael Laidlaw, formerly the Executive Deputy Commissioner in DSS’ Office of Staff Resources – effectively the head of human resources – “committed unwelcome sexual conduct toward her by groping her and frequently and severely harassing her” before leaving the agency.
But the problems didn’t end there, Torres alleges. After his exit from DSS, higher-ups loyal to Laidlaw retaliated against Torres by removing her access to internal computer systems, curtailing her authority, and spreading rumors meant to harm her reputation and credibility, Torres alleges in the March 1 filing in Bronx Supreme Court.
The behavior of her colleagues led Torres, a retired Army Major who worked in human resources for the military branch, to seek a job in a different department – a change that amounted to a demotion and which derailed Torres’ career, she said.
Despite the transfer, DSS executives and employees continued to spread confidential information about Torres’ complaint, making her employment at the agency intolerable, she said.
Torres, who had earned a $96,000 salary in Human Resources, left for a job that paid $30,000 less because of the ongoing harassment, the suit alleges.
“It was an extremely difficult situation,” Torres told Bronx Justice News. “What do you do when the head of HR sexually harasses you? Then to deal with the retaliation by leaders and coworkers with a misguided sense of loyalty despite his firing.”
Torres said that while it’s important to bring attention to the issue of harassment and unwanted touching in the “Me Too” era, “even a victory is a loss.”
“There is a culture of sexual harassment within” DSS, her suit alleges.
The city’s law department declined comment. DSS did not respond to questions about Laidlaw’s employment.
DSS is comprised of the administrative units of the NYC Human Resources Administration and the Department of Homeless Services.
Torres said multiple complaints were lodged against Laidlaw before he allegedly groped her buttocks at an off-site company event in March 2016, but “DSS did nothing to stop it” and even promoted Laidlaw despite the complaints, the lawsuit alleges.
At that same event, Laidlaw allegedly “danced inappropriately with a subordinate” while DSS executives stood by laughing, Torres’ suit alleges.
One of those executives was Gary Jenkins, now the First Deputy Commissioner for the city’s Human Resources Administration, who Torres says told her, “Go get your boss. It is your job to keep him out of trouble,” before he broke into laughter, the suit alleges.
Torres said the complaint she filed against Laidlaw “was found substantiated…and yet my life and career would never be the same.”
Jenkins, along with Tom Colon, Deputy Commissioner for the Office of Staff Resources, previously had multiple sexual harassment complaints filed against them, but DSS “did nothing to stop their behavior,” and even gave them pay increases, Torres said in her suit.
Both men were seen on video at the off-site event laughing at Laidlaw’s inappropriate behavior, the suit claims.
Efforts to reach Laidlaw, Jenkins, and Colon for response to the lawsuit were unsuccessful.
Torres’ suit seeks unspecified damages.
“It happened to me despite my experience [in the Army] and position,” Torres said. “I was recently retired and afraid of being fired. If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone.”
The Equal Employment Opportunity complaints filed by Torres were “swiftly investigated and substantiated” by DDS, an agency official with knowledge of the probe said.
In August 2016, the agency began a process that would have led to Laidlaw’s firing, the official said.
Instead, Laidlaw resigned quietly with no public announcement made about the groping incident or harassment at the nation’s largest social service agency.
In an Oct. 21 e-mail to Bronx Justice News, Lori Blair, a Texas-based attorney retained by Laidlaw, said: “In over 35 years of his career fighting inequities, Mr. Laidlaw has never had a complaint, grievance, or lawsuit filed against him. That not one person joined Ms. Torres in her lawsuit or grievance illuminates the falsehood of there being multiple complaints regarding our client.”
Blair said “there was no complaint filed” against Laidlaw alleging he ever danced inappropriately with a subordinate; an allegation made in Torres’ lawsuit.
“Our client resigned his position rather than subject himself to a process he knew would be unfairly used to undermine his effectiveness,” wrote Blair. “Mr. Laidlaw understood from his experiences that the process is the punishment and this unmerited complaint would cast a cloud over his leadership.”
Blair said Torres’ lawsuit “is still ongoing and may in fact be dismissed (a dismissal hearing in the case is scheduled soon). Justice, in this instance, has not yet run its course and Mr. Laidlaw’s defense should be allowed to be fully heard before any allegations are reported as true.”
This story has been updated.