Discrimination lawsuit against Assemblymember Vivian Cook will proceed to trial

State Assemblymember Vivian Cook created a “hostile and intimidating” work environment, a former staff member alleges in a lawsuit in Queens Supreme Court. Photo by  Amirabbady00  via WIkimedia Commons

State Assemblymember Vivian Cook created a “hostile and intimidating” work environment, a former staff member alleges in a lawsuit in Queens Supreme Court. Photo by Amirabbady00 via WIkimedia Commons

By David Brand

A discrimination lawsuit filed against Assemblymember Vivian Cook by a former staffer will proceed in court, after a Queens judge denied the veteran lawmaker’s motion to toss the 2018 complaint on Monday.

The $1.5 million lawsuit filed by former legislative aide Gail Palmer accuses Cook of directing racial slurs at her and refusing to give Palmer time off to accompany her late husband to chemotherapy. Cook is chairperson of the Queens County Democratic Committee and has represented parts of Southeast Queens in the State Assembly since 1991.

Justice Chereé Buggs dismissed many elements of the lawsuit after determining that the alleged incidents occurred outside a three-year statute of limitations, but she denied Cook’s motion to dismiss claims of racial discrimination under New York City Human Rights Law, discrimination based on the plaintiff’s caregiver status and allegations that Cook created a “hostile and intimidating work environment.”

Palmer worked as a legislative aide to Cook for less than six months in 2006 before she quit the $36,000 per year job because of what she called a hostile workplace, according to the complaint. Palmer returned to work in Cook’s office from 2010 to 2016, this time earning $30,000 because Cook said she was working fewer hours, according to court documents. Palmer contended that she was working 40 hours per week but started the day earlier so that she could take her late-husband to his cancer treatment. 

Throughout her two stints in the office, Palmer, who is of multiracial descent, claimed that Cook, who is black, used racial slurs disparaging multiracial individuals and that Cook called her a “whore” and a “prostitute” for wearing sleeveless dresses, the lawsuit alleges.

“We’re gratified that Ms. Palmer is going to have her day in court,” Palmer’s attorney Neal Brickman told the Eagle

Palmer’s complaint also claimed that Cook’s grandson Reginald Chalmers, another office staff member, acted aggressively toward her, at one point berating her when she did not bring him a McDonald’s breakfast. Buggs dismissed the case against Chalmers, as well as the New York State Assembly, which was also named as a defendant. 

“The only part of the decision that disappointed me is that we were not able to keep the Assembly in as a defendant,” Brickman said, adding that he considered the Assembly an employer with liability. The Assembly opened an investigation into Palmer’s claims against Chalmers but determined there were no violations.

“I think the Assembly … tried to whitewash the issue,” he said. “The Assembly said it was investigating Ms. Palmer’s complaints and they were responsible for trying to work it out. If that’s the entity to whom you have to complain and that’s the entity charged with writing wrongs that it sees, how can it not be liable.”

Palmer worked with constituents and the media, conducted research, tracked legislation and performed administrative tasks in the office for Cook.

While Palmer’s husband was sick, Cook had the office locks changed and did not provide Palmer with a key, which prevented Palmer, who began work at 8 a.m., from entering the office until another staff member arrived, the lawsuit alleges. Palmer’s husband died in hospice care.

Cook and her attorneys from the law firm Hogan Lovells did not immediately respond to requests for comment.