Two Real Estate Agents Say Racism Was Part of the Culture at Brokerage
Jarret Willis, a Black real estate agent at a luxury brokerage in the Hamptons, said his co-workers called him Jafar — a comparison to the brown-skinned, villainous sorcerer from “Aladdin.”
Managers routinely lobbed racial epithets around the office, according to a lawsuit filed on Tuesday in New York State Supreme Court by Harlan Goldberg, who is white and who worked with Mr. Willis at the brokerage.
Mr. Goldberg is suing their former brokerage, Bespoke Real Estate, for wrongful termination, unpaid commission and punitive damages. He claims he was fired in part for his objections to Mr. Willis’s treatment by the co-founders of the company, the brothers Cody and Zachary Vichinsky. His lawsuit follows complaintsthat Mr. Willis filed in February with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and New York State Division of Human Rights. Mr. Goldberg and Mr. Willis plan to jointly file a separate suit that will focus more on the claims of discrimination, according to their lawyer, Adam Leitman Bailey.
“Bespoke categorically denies the allegations and looks forward to vindicating its position in court,” Marc A. Sittenreich, a lawyer representing the firm, said in a statement.
The allegations come amid national scrutiny of discrimination in the real estate industry where, according to the National Association of Realtors, only 8 percent of agents are Black nationwide.
Bespoke operates in the upper crust of luxury real estate, dealing primarily with properties listed for $10 million or more, with a large presence in Miami, New York City and the Hamptons. Three of the 10 most expensive ZIP codes in the country are in the Hamptons, according to RealtyHop, a real estate data website. The town of Southampton, the location of the Bespoke office, is 83 percent white and 5 percent Black, according to the census.
Mr. Willis, 44, a former model who co-owns a fashion boutique in Bridgehampton called Blue One, joined Bespoke in 2017 as a sales associate. He said he was recruited by the firm for his network of friends and associates. His first deal, the sale of a $32.5 million Bridgehampton estate where he represented the buyer, netted him a commission close to $400,000, he said.
But office life was filled with indignities, Mr. Willis said in an interview. In early 2021, Cody Vichinsky, one of his managers, said that he should order “watermelon and fried chicken” for lunch, adding a racial slur, according to Mr. Willis. Mr. Goldberg said he also heard the comment.
In a text message shared with The Times, one white colleague wished Mr. Willis a happy birthday, followed by a racial slur.
The same co-worker sent Mr. Willis a text message saying that an orange shirt he wore made him “look like an inmate,” and used a racial slur to describe the look.
“It killed me inside,” Mr. Willis said. “But the reason I stayed and swallowed it and dealt with it was because I was always owed money,” adding that he disputed his share of the commission on a number of transactions that he helped close.
In April 2022, Mr. Willis was demoted from his role as vice president of Bespoke Parallel, a division of the company, which he claims was retaliation for contesting how much was owed to him for recent sales, according to the lawsuit.
Payment disputes can be especially vexing for Black real estate agents. White agents in 2021 were paid a net median income of $39,500, while their Black peers were paid just $14,400, according to the National Association of Realtors.
The company fired Mr. Goldberg in September 2022, a month after he said he raised concerns about Mr. Willis’s demotion, as well as issues with outstanding payments on some of his transactions, according to the lawsuit.
Mr. Willis resigned from the company in December 2022. The last insult, he said, was when he discovered that his company-issued email account password had been set to “Jafar24!” He quit a few days later, he said.
“I want an acknowledgment of their behavior,” he said. “I want an apology.”
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.