NEW YORK, NY – The City of New York has agreed to pay $1.25 million to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by three female police officers against a lieutenant in the 44th Precinct in the Bronx, the officers’ lawyers said on Wednesday.
The lieutenant, Alexander Rojas, 44, had been accused in the lawsuit of groping the officers, exposing himself, showing them explicit videos and photographs of himself, and making sexually explicit comments.
The lawsuit also accuses the lieutenant of retaliating against them after they rejected his advances by giving them less favorable hours and assignments. In one episode, Lieutenant Rojas hit one officer in the chest as he was grabbing files out of her hands, the suit claims.
The settlement came after the Law Department, which was defending the city and the officer, withdrew from his representation after he made statements in a deposition that appeared to raise questions about his behavior, a transcript shows. He then retained his own counsel.
Lieutenant Rojas, who has retired from the New York Police Department, has denied the allegations in the lawsuit.
The three plaintiffs were department veterans, the lawsuit says. One officer, Dawn Sprague, 44, claimed in the suit that as early as 2012, Lieutenant Rojas began acting in “an overly familiar and inappropriate manner,” including touching and rubbing her back while praising her work.
His advances became more aggressive, the suit says, as he made explicit comments and referred to her in sexually derogatory terms. The suit claims he also repeatedly played her a cellphone video of a woman performing oral sex on a man he claimed was himself.
Officer Sprague said she vehemently told the lieutenant that she did not want to watch the video and emphatically rejected his advances, the suit says.
Another officer, Claudia Melara, 36, claimed Lieutenant Rojas had engaged in unwanted touching and once called her into his office and showed her a photo of male genitals on his phone. “This is me. Do you like it?” he said, after which Officer Melara immediately left, the suit says.
In the case of the third plaintiff, Maria Lampley, 36, the lieutenant blocked her in his office, turned off the lights, groped her and tried to kiss her, the suit says. It also claims that he sent her a picture of what he said was his genitals and included a crude joke.
On May 1, three hours into the deposition, a city lawyer, Stephen Pischl, asked for a recess and soon said that the city had a potential conflict of interest representing Lieutenant Rojas.
Mr. Pischl called for the recess after the lieutenant acknowledged some crude behavior with the women, according to a copy of the deposition obtained by The New York Times.
Lieutenant Rojas said, for example, that he had texted photographs of male genitalia to one or two of the officers on separate occasions, adding comments like “check me out,” he acknowledged under questioning from a plaintiff’s lawyer, Kevin Mintzer.
The lieutenant said the pictures were from the Internet.
“Did you consider it appropriate to send a picture of a penis to your subordinate?” Mr. Mintzer asked.
“No,” he replied.
“Do you believe it’s a violation of the N.Y.P.D.’s harassment policy, as you understand it?”
The lieutenant said he was not sure.
On May 11, the city’s lawyer, Mr. Pischl, wrote to Judge Valerie E. Caproni of Federal District Court in Manhattan that the city would withdraw its representation of Lieutenant Rojas and told him to find another lawyer.
Lieutenant Rojas will contribute $12,500 of the settlement amount, the women’s lawyers said.
The lawyers, Mr. Mintzer and Mariann Meier Wang, said in a statement that their clients were “grateful that their ordeal is over” and pleased with the deal.
“However, a settlement does not erase the trauma of physical and psychological abuse they endured,” the lawyers said, adding, “The fact that a high-ranking lieutenant could brazenly torment multiple women over several years suggests something is not right in the culture of the N.Y.P.D.”
A Law Department spokesman said on Wednesday, “Settling the case was in the city’s best interest.” The Police Department, in a statement, said: “The N.Y.P.D. pursued disciplinary action against the officer in this case. The N.Y.P.D. has strict policies prohibiting sexual harassment.”
Lieutenant Rojas’s lawyer, James M. Moschella, said his client, “in agreeing to contribute toward the city’s settlement of this matter, continues to deny any wrongdoing or misconduct.
“It was a business decision, to avoid the prohibitive cost of litigating the case, made after the city withdrew from representing him,” Mr. Moschella added.
He added that his client “maintains that his actions never rose to the level of violating the law, and he would never have engaged in any behavior that was not reciprocal in nature.
From The New York Times