CAIR-NY, ECBA File Civil Rights Class Action Lawsuit to Block NYPD From Removing Arrestees’ Hijabs for Booking Photos

Together with the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-NY), Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP (ECBA), filed a class action civil rights law lawsuit in federal court seeking an injunction to block the New York City Police Department (NYPD) from removing arrestees’ religious head coverings (like hijabs) for their booking photos.

The lawsuit claims that NYPD Patrol Guide Order 208-03 and 208-07 forces religiously-observant women to remove their head coverings for a booking photo, even when these garments leave the face completely unobstructed, as the hijab does.

CAIR-NY and ECBA filed the lawsuit this morning in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York alleging that the NYPD photograph policy violates the New York State Constitution, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

As the lawsuit notes, municipalities across the country allow arrestees to retain religious head covering for their booking photos. In addition, the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles allows women to retain their hijab for driver’s license photos, and the U.S. State Department allows women to retain their hijab in passport photos.

NYPD booking photos are kept in arrestees’ files and computer databases where they are readily visible to officers and other men, compounding arrestees’ sense of violation.

“Our city is quick to make progressive promises, but slow to enact reforms,” said CAIR NY Legal Director Albert Fox Cahn. “This is a moment when Muslim New Yorkers need our support, not abuse. In just the past two years, New York State saw a 974 percent increase in anti-Muslim harassment, discrimination and hate crimes. It is intolerable that our officers force Muslim women to uncover against their will. It’s time for New York City to live-up to our promise of being a sanctuary for all faiths – we’ve fallen short for too long.”

“No New Yorker should be mugged for a mug shot,” said ECBA Partner O. Andrew F. Wilson. “Stripping New Yorkers of religious head coverings that do not obscure their faces serves no legitimate purpose.”

“There is a rapidly-consolidating consensus among police departments across the United States that religious head coverings should not be removed for mug shots,” said ECBA Associate Emma L. Freeman. “New York should be leading this trend, not following it.”

“When they forced me to take off my hijab, I felt as if I were naked, I’m not sure if words can capture how exposed and violated I felt,” said plaintiff Jamilla Clark.

“I expected to be celebrating the holidays with my family, but instead I found myself being forced to undress in a room full of men, my beliefs being trampled,” said plaintiff Arwa Aziz.

“I fear this policy makes it harder for victims of domestic violence that we serve to report their abusers to the police,” said Turning Point for Women and Families’ Founder and Executive Director, Robina Niaz.

The lawsuit names two individual plaintiffs, including Jamilla Clark, a survivor of domestic violence, who was allegedly arrested on charges fabricated by her abuser. Even though the charges against Clark were later dropped, during the course of her arrest she was forced to remove her hijab.

According to the complaint, a “NYPD officer took a photograph of Ms. Clark as she wept and begged to put her hijab back on. The officer ignored Ms. Clark, stored the photograph in an online database and on Ms. Clark’s paper file, and showed it to numerous male officers.” An officer also allegedly mocked Clark’s Muslim faith. A second named plaintiff, Arwa Aziz, is a mother of two who was detained on the eve of the Eid holiday (an Islamic religious holiday) just as she planned to prepare the family’s holiday meal. Instead of celebrating with loved ones, she was held on charges allegedly fabricated by an estranged relative. The charges against Aziz were later dismissed, but she too was forced to remove her hijab.

According to the complaint, “officers refused to allow Ms. Aziz to keep her hijab on while having her picture taken. . . They told her, falsely: ‘It’s the law.’ Frantic, weeping, and bareheaded in a hallway full of men who do not belong to her immediate family, Ms. Aziz felt broken.”

A third plaintiff is the organization Turning Points for Women and Families (TPNY), a non-profit that works on behalf of Muslim women who have survived domestic violence. TPNY has expressed concern about how the NYPD policy, and the threat of retaliatory arrest, could deter survivors from contacting police when help is most needed.

Click here to read New York Times coverage of the case.


ECBA Sues Large NYC Property Manager for Disability and Source of Income Discrimination

On February 21, 2018, the law firm of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady (ECBA) filed suit in federal district court on behalf of Alfred Spooner and the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC) alleging disability and source of income discrimination against Goldfarb Properties—a managing agent of over 6,000 apartments throughout New York City and its surrounding suburbs.

The lawsuit challenges Goldfarb’s practice of imposing a minimum annual income requirement on low-income, disabled, housing applicants like Mr. Spooner who use state-funded vouchers to pay the majority of their rent. After Mr. Spooner’s rental application was rejected, the FHJC sent testers posing as potential renters with rental subsidies and vouchers to the defendant’s properties to inquire about the availability of apartments. The tests revealed that Goldfarb categorically turned away these applicants even though they had the means to pay the full rent because they did not make forty-three times the rent in income—a practical impossibility for any person eligible for a disability-and-income-based voucher. The plaintiffs are represented by ECBA attorneys Diane L. Houk and David Berman.


16 Years After First ECBA Class Action, Mayor and City Council Agree to Close Rikers Island

Sixteen years after ECBA filed its first class action alleging a pattern and practice of  brutality and poor training, discipline, and investigations of corrections officers at Rikers Island, Mayor De Blasio and the City Council have agreed to shut down Rikers Island once and for all.  In 2001, ECBA filed the original lawsuit, Ingles v. Toro, with co-counsel Legal Aid Society and Sullivan & Cromwell. The case settled in 2003, but the settlement failed to reduce use of force by corrections officers on Rikers Island. As a result, in 2011, ECBA filed a new class action, Nunez v. City of New York, with co-counsel Legal Aid Society and Ropes & Gray, again alleging a pattern and practice of brutality and cover-ups by corrections officers at Rikers Island. Nunez, and a parallel Department of Justice lawsuit, settled in 2015, resulting in thousands of new cameras, a federal monitor, and other sweeping reforms at Rikers. The case also brought to light the fundamental inhumanity and unfairness of the entire institution.

ECBA lawyers involved in the Rikers cases include Jonathan Abady, Ilann M. Maazel, Katherine Rosenfeld, Debra Greenberger, Zoe Salzman, and Vasudha Talla.


ECBA Settles Disability Wrongful Death Case for $2.25 Million

As reported in the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, ECBA has settled the case of Eddie Velasquez, a disabled man who died in a New York State group home. Eddie choked to death on a piece of turkey left unsecured and uncut in a kitchen refrigerator. An internal investigation revealed lapses in training and staffing, and a series of failures by New York State employees that led to Eddie’s death. ECBA attorney Ilann Maazel represented the Velasquez family in the case.


ECBA Attorney Jessica Clarke Quoted in BBC Article on Sexual Harassment in Housing

ECBA attorney Jessica Clarke was quoted in a BBC article titled: “A woman’s choice – sexual favours or lose her home.” The article details a case that Jessica Clarke worked on while an attorney at the Justice Department, in which women were coerced into sexual encounters with men who were in control of their housing. The case was in Laurinburg, North Carolina and involved two employees of a public housing agency that administered the Section 8 voucher program. The two men threatened to revoke housing vouchers for numerous women unless they acquiesced to their sexual demands. As Jessica describes in the article “[t]he breadth of it was so shocking. . . . When the person who has the keys to your door, who controls where you live is a predator, there’s nothing scarier.”

To read the full article, click here.


Court Rules Cosmetic Surgeon Illegally Denied Surgery to Patient Living with HIV

Judge Analisa Torres of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that a New York cosmetic surgeon violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the New York City Human Rights Law when he refused to treat patients living with HIV. Emery Celli and the HIV Law Project represent Mark Milano, a man living with HIV who was summarily turned away by Dr. Emanuel Asare after Asare said he had a policy against performing surgery on people living with HIV. The District Court granted summary judgment to Mr. Milano and the United States government, which also sued the physician, ruling that Asare’s blanket policy violated the law.

“Even after having lived with HIV for 30 years, the statement from Dr. Asare that it was his policy to never perform any procedures on people with HIV was like a punch in the gut,” Mr. Milano said. “It left me on the verge of tears. I had never experienced such blatant HIV discrimination in my life. Since then, I have heard similar stories from friends about other cosmetic surgeons. No one should have to go through this. People with HIV have as much right to cosmetic surgery as anybody else.”

Mr. Milano was represented by Matthew Brinckerhoff and Ali Frick. Speaking to the Associated Press, Ms. Frick praised the court for “elevat[ing] science and facts over fear and prejudice.” Read the AP’s story here; the New York Law Journal also covered the decision. Judge Torres’ opinion is available here.


ECBA Attorney Testifies at NYC Commission on Human Rights Hearing on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

On December 6, 2017, ECBA attorney Alanna Kaufman testified at the New York City Commission on Human Rights Hearing on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace. In her testimony, she urged the Commission to continue to “create legal forums where women feel comfortable and safe coming forward” in instances of harassment and discrimination. Alanna described the harrowing experience of ECBA client LaDonna Powell, a victim of workplace sexual harassment and gender discrimination at Allied Security Services at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Alanna further explained: “What happened to LaDonna is the same thing that happens to countless women every day in industries that are not bathed in media light.”

To view the public hearing and Alanna’s testimony, click here. Alanna’s testimony begins at 2:39:00.

To view the written testimony, click here.

To view LaDonna Powell’s federal discrimination and sexual harassment complaint, click here.


ECBA Resolves Broadway Triangle Housing Discrimination Case with Landmark Settlement

A landmark settlement agreement was filed with the Court today resolving a lawsuit brought by ECBA’s client the Broadway Triangle Community Coalition, a diverse group of more than 40 nonprofits, residents, and fair housing advocates.  The Coalition filed suit 8 years ago, alleging that the City’s rezoning and development plans for the Broadway Triangle area of Brooklyn were discriminatory and perpetuated segregation.

The settlement agreement provides for the development of over 375 permanently affordable apartments that will be developed in a way designed to further fair housing without discrimination.  The agreement also provides that the City will pay between $2.4 and $4.8 million to fund fair housing workshops, counseling and educational materials, as well as legal representation for people with housing discrimination complaints in the Broadway Triangle neighborhood, which lies at the intersection of Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant.

“After years of effort, today’s settlement means the city will properly respond to the real needs of our diverse communities in North Brooklyn,” said Juan Ramos of the Broadway Triangle Community Coalition. “There is a long history of housing discrimination in this area, and affordable housing in the Broadway Triangle is more important than ever given the rapid gentrification and displacement of families who have lived here for generations.”

“The affordable housing development plan, combined with fair housing services in this settlement agreement, provides a strong template for other neighborhoods across the country to use when challenging racially discriminatory housing redevelopment plans,” said ECBA’s Diane L. Houk.

The Coalition is represented by ECBA attorneys Diane L. Houk and Zoe Salzman, together with the New York Civil Liberties Union and  Brooklyn Legal Services Corp. A.

Click here to read the press release.

Click here to read the settlement agreement.

Click here to read the New York Times story on the settlement.

Click here to read the New York Law Journal story on the settlement.


ECBA Files Employment Discrimination Complaint on Behalf of Former World Trade Center Security Guard

On November 16, 2017, ECBA filed a charge of discrimination with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of Nicole Johnson, a former security professional for Allied Universal Security Services at the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan. Allied, one of the nation’s largest security firms, contracts with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to provide security services at sensitive locations including the World Trade Center and area airports.

The complaint alleges that, during her time at Allied, Ms. Johnson was subjected to a campaign of sexual harassment by a supervisor that was facilitated by Allied human resources workers who failed to act on her repeated complaints and instead disseminated rumors about her to her co-workers. As the harassment escalated, Ms. Johnson was the victim of groping, unwanted sexual touching, and a barrage of obscene and degrading comments. Ultimately, she was fired for pretextual reasons in retaliation for complaining about the culture of harassment at Allied.
ECBA also represents LaDonna Powell, a former security supervisor at JFK airport who has sued Allied for sexual harassment and violations of wage and hour laws.

WNBC’s I-Team, which previously covered Ms. Powell’s case, broadcast a followup story on Ms. Johnson’s complaint on November 21, 2017.


ECBA’s Elizabeth Saylor, David Lebowitz, and Alanna Kaufman represent Ms. Powell and Ms. Johnson.


City Agrees to Pay $2.5M to Wrongly Convicted Man

New York City will pay $2.5 million to ECBA client Joel Fowler, who was wrongly convicted of a 2007 Brooklyn murder. Prosecutors under the watch of late Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson concluded in 2015 that Mr. Fowler had nothing to do with the murder. The New York Daily News covered the settlement here. This settlement is the latest of the many wrongful conviction cases that Emery Celli has settled.

ECBA attorneys Earl Ward and Ali Frick represented Mr. Fowler, along with the Law Offices of Joel B. Rudin.