DOJ reaches 'historic' settlement against a landlord accused of sexually harassing tenants

Joseph Centanni agreed to pay a multi-million-dollar settlement plus a civil penalty to the government to end a Department of Justice lawsuit.

(CNN)A New Jersey landlord has agreed to pay $4.5 million in damages to resolve a lawsuit alleging he demanded sexual favors from tenants and applicants so they could keep or receive housing, the Justice Department announced in a news release Tuesday.

The settlement, which still has to be approved by the US District Court for the District of New Jersey, is the largest monetary settlement the Justice Department has ever obtained in a case involving sexual harassment in housing, the release said.
"This lawsuit and historic settlement send a clear message that the Department will not stand by idly as landlords abuse their power to prey on vulnerable tenants," Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, with the department's Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.
      Joseph Centanni, who owns hundreds of rental units in and around Elizabeth, allegedly violated the Fair Housing Act by subjecting tenants and applicants to sexual harassment on multiple occasions for more than 15 years, according to the release. The act prohibits discrimination in housing, including on the basis of sex.
        He allegedly demanded sexual favors from applicants and tenants, touched them in a "way that was sexual and unwelcome," made sexual comments and advances and offered benefits such as reduced rent in exchange for sexual favors, the release said.
          Centanni would "take housing applicants and tenants places on his properties like empty apartments, empty laundry rooms or storage rooms where he would ask for massages, expose himself, demand oral sex and force people to touch him sexually," Clarke told reporters. "If they submitted to his demands, he allowed them to move in or keep their housing. If people did not submit, Centanni would refuse to rent to them or evicted them."
          Raymond Londa, an attorney for Centanni, told CNN, "Mr. Centanni settled the matter to avoid protracted litigation."
          "As the consent decree language indicates, in several different places, it states that he did not in any way shape or form admit or acknowledge wrongdoing or liability," Londa said. "He continues to deny the allegations made against him in this and in any other cases."
          The department opened an investigation into Centanni in 2019 and filed a lawsuit in August 2020. Centanni participates in the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program, also known as Section 8, and receives about $102,000 monthly in voucher payments, prosecutors said.
          He agreed to pay the multi-million-dollar settlement plus a civil penalty to the government. Part of the settlement includes a proposed consent decree that will require the formation of a victim compensation fund of nearly $4.4 million -- the largest such fund ever established by the Justice Department in a sexual harassment case under the Fair Housing Act -- to compensate those who were subjected to Centanni's harassment and provides additional time for which the Justice Department can continue the investigation to find additional victims.
          The consent decree says Centanni will have 30 days once the decree goes into effect to deposit that fund amount.
          "No one should have to submit to a demand for sex in order to have a place to live," Clarke said. The landmark settlement is a part of the Justice Department's ongoing effort to combat sexual harassment in housing, Clarke added.
          Since October 2017, the department has filed 23 lawsuits alleging sexual harassment in housing.
          "And with today's settlement [the Justice Department] recovered over $9.5 million for victims of sexual harassment," Clarke said.
            "We will not relent in our commitment to put an end to sexual harassment, combat discrimination based on gender and protect the rights of those in our LGBTQ+ community," Acting US Attorney Rachael A. Honig for the District of New Jersey said. "Discrimination based on sex include harassment based on gender identity and based on sexual orientation and we encourage anyone who is experiencing discrimination or harassment to contact our office, anytime."
            Centanni also has a pending criminal case filed by the Union County prosecutor's office in which he faces up to 10 years in prison for the top charges of second-degree attempted sexual assault. Londa also represents Centanni in the pending case, but declined to comment on that.