After a coworker allegedly choked city Department of Transportation sidewalk repairer Simone Samuels over a scheduling dispute last year, she feared her bosses would retaliate if she filed a formal complaint against him.
So Samuels, 44 and a single mother of four, emailed then-Commissioner Polly Trottenberg.
“I am reaching out to you because looking to sue is not my focus by any means,” Samuels wrote on Sept. 16, 2020. “Clearing my name however is. I don’t know where else to turn for help on this matter.”
She said she was overjoyed when Trottenberg responded quickly.
“Simone — I am so sorry to hear this, thank you for reaching out. I am looking into what happened and will find a time for us to talk,” Trottenberg wrote the next day according to an email Samuels shared with THE CITY.
But Samuels says she never heard back. Trottenberg resigned just over two months after the email exchange and is now deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Transportation.
More than a year later, Samuels says her worst fears have come true: She’s been transferred to a DOT shop in College Point, Queens, that’s located more than an hour away from her Bronx home.
She had been working at a department location in Pelham Parkway, 15 minutes from where she lives, before she filed a complaint about the alleged assault — and contends she was transferred as retaliation. Her alleged attacker remains at the old location at Pitkin Avenue in The Bronx, according to Samuels.
Meanwhile, she charges her supervisors are forcing her to use heavy equipment, despite a hip and lower back injury she says she suffered at work when equipment fell on her in March.
‘An Obstructionist Culture’
Samuels and her supporters say her treatment underscores how what they call the male-dominated world of the city Department of Transportation — 76% of agency employees are men, according to a 2018 report — fails to protect women.
“There’s been an obstructionist culture around her experience,” said Samuels’ lawyer, Randi Cohen. “Women seem to be afraid to step out. The men look out for each other and are shielded by the suits upstairs.”
‘The men look out for each other and are shielded by the suits upstairs.’
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Transportation referred questions about Trottenberg’s initial response to the city’s Department of Transportation.
Alana Morales, a city DOT spokesperson, noted that Samuels amended her charge with the Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in October 2021 “and requested a right to sue notice.”
“This takes the case out of EEOC,” Morales said. “In view of the pending litigation we have no comment other than DOT does not tolerate any of the alleged conduct and we take these matters very seriously.”
Samuels can’t afford to quit and isn’t looking for “the lawsuit of the century,” said Cohen.
Cohen and her colleague, Kimberly Kalmanson, said they’ve been in contact with DOT lawyers trying to “problem solve and let her go to work and do her job in an environment where she doesn’t feel threatened.”
‘Nothing There That’s True’
According to Samuels, coworker Rohan Robinson assaulted her after a dispute over weekend scheduling boiled over.
He told her she needed to come to work on Saturday to help with anticipated snow removal on Jan. 19, 2020, the EEOC complaint alleges.
Samuels, who didn’t typically work on weekends, was confused but reported for duty anyway. Her boss told her it was actually Robinson who was supposed to show up for the mandatory overtime shift, according to the complaint.
That Tuesday, Samuels says Robinson confronted her about the scheduling snafu when she entered the office and began to clock in at 6 a.m.
Samuels acknowledges the two fought verbally over the weekend.
“At that, Mr. Robinson became irate,” her EEOC complaint alleges. “Mr. Robinson shoved me up against a wall and held me by my neck, screaming and cursing inches from my face.”
Two male coworkers pulled him off her, according to the complaint. Samuels got an MRI on her neck after her shift but didn’t file a report with the police because she didn’t believe it would help and “was seeking to move on from the incident without further rancor,” her complaint says.
“But, emboldened, Robinson continued to harass me, making aggressive comments and physically towering over me in a threatening way at every opportunity he could find,” Samuels said in the complaint.
Robinson, who has over 10 years on the job, denied her claims.
“There’s nothing there that’s true,” he told THE CITY. “She comes up with allegations against everybody.”
‘Let It Go’
Samuels says she followed every protocol in place after the alleged assault.
She says she wasn’t able to report the incident to her direct supervisor because he was a witness, so she filed an incident report with a higher up, the deputy commissioner of the Sidewalk Improvement unit.
In response, the yard was shut down for approximately three weeks during the investigation and Robinson was placed on unpaid suspension, according to the EEOC complaint. But when the workspace reopened, Samuels was sent to a yard by the West Side Highway and Robinson remained, records show. Samuels said she was subsequently moved to College Point in December.
‘Everybody keeps saying if you see something, see something.... I’m vocalizing.’
She also submitted a complaint with the city’s Department of Investigation, records show.
“Everybody keeps saying if you see something, see something,” she said. “I went through protocol. I’m going. I’m vocalizing.”
According to Samuels, a DOI investigator later called and told her that two people at the scene verified her account, but that there wouldn’t be any sort of punishment.
“His exact words were, ‘OK, now you can let it go,’ ” she recalled as she held back tears.
Diane Struzzi, a DOI spokesperson, said the department “does not discuss unsubstantiated complaints.”
Struzzi added that DOI’s “record of this matter does not comport” with Samuels’ account. Samuels said she believed the call occurred in October 2020. But Struzzi said the investigator’s last contact with Samuels took place a month later.
Meanwhile, Samuels is waiting for the EEOC to respond with a “right to sue notice” to allow her to file a lawsuit against the department in federal court.
Mayor Bill de Blasio “or anyone who has higher power is absolutely fabricating their work protocol to protect women,” Samuels said.