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This Bad Boss Offered to Be Her Mentor — But Instead Became a Tormentor

In college, Michelle Tulino set her sights on working for the New York City government — somewhere she could help people “from the ground up,” she told a court.

An internship at the city’s Department of Small Business Services (DSBS) only strengthened her resolve, as she worked happily with woman- and minority-owned businesses while reporting to a “strong woman [who] taught me how women are able to make change in society,” she testified.

After school she snagged a full-time job as client services manager at DSBS — and that’s when she met Shaazad Ali, an assistant DSBS commissioner who would turn her dream job into an ordeal.

According to Ms. Tulino’s testimony, Mr. Ali presented himself as someone who could accept H.R. complaints for the agency. When she told him that her new male boss had crudely propositioned her, however, he replied that sexual demands from managers were simply part of the DSBS culture and “he couldn’t do anything about it,” she testified.

As an alternative, she told jurors, Mr. Ali said he’d act as her personal mentor and protector.

Over the next few years, according to testimony, the assistant commissioner — married and some 30 years older than Ms. Tulino — preyed on the inexperienced employee by gaslighting her about how other managers saw her; by inviting her out and giving her gifts; by probing her private life in unwelcome ways; and by accusing her of harming his health with her rebuffs.

Eventually Mr. Ali made a place for Ms. Tulino in his own operation and installed her in a cubicle near his office. He expressed jealousy of her friendship with a male employee, he admitted in court. And in one especially unnerving display, Mr. Ali slapped himself on the face and berated himself when Ms. Tulino challenged his truthfulness, an incident he also acknowledged to jurors.

Matters reached a head immediately afterward, as Mr. Ali tried to force himself on Ms. Tulino, she testified. The shaken employee geared up to file a complaint — not with Mr. Ali this time — while he retaliated by removing her access to work tools and changing her reporting structure in what she viewed as a demotion, jurors heard.

After an internal investigation found insufficient evidence to support her allegations of harassment, Ms. Tulino testified, she was told to continue working under Mr. Ali — or to leave.

She resigned and, according to testimony, has been psychologically unable to work since.

Shaazad Ali is our new Bad Boss of the Month.

Ms. Tulino sued the City of New York, Mr. Ali, and other officials. Last year a federal jury awarded Ms. Tulino $2 million in emotional damages, later reduced by the judge to $1.5 million. Her case is currently on appeal, with arguments scheduled for mid-2020.

In court Michelle Tulino described herself as a “first-generation American” with Italian and Polish parents. Growing up in Brooklyn, she was taught to value education and hard work.

At DSBS, however, she encountered a culture where sexual favors were expected for advancement, she testified — a sharp contrast to the idyllic internship that had drawn her to the agency. At trial she cried when describing the letdown, to the point that defense attorneys griped to the judge, who declined to intervene. Continuing, Ms. Tulino told jurors of an early supervisor who bluntly told her “that he wanted to f*** me in the back of his car — excuse my language.”

She rejected the advance and approached Mr. Ali, she testified, but the assistant commissioner told her there was no Equal Employment Opportunity process at DSBS, and that “women [are expected] to have sex with the male executives.” Since she didn’t want to do that, she told jurors, Mr. Ali offered to help her “navigate the discriminatory culture.”

In an early example of such help, Ms. Tulino testified, Mr. Ali warned her that she was on the DSBS commissioner’s “s**t list” for declining an invitation to drinks. Mr. Ali said she was in danger of demotion or firing, she testified — but added that he could “help me find a way to stay employed” because “he holds the purse strings.” Mr. Ali pushed Ms. Tulino to switch jobs within DSBS, which she did.

The relationship took a darker turn, Ms. Tulino told jurors, when Mr. Ali began informing her that “his male colleagues and friends” were calling her a “slut” and a “whore” and wanted nude photographs of her — news that she described as “a slap in the face.”

“I wanted him to do something about it,” she testified. “I wanted him to write them up, make a report about it, do something to punish them for it. … And he said, ‘You can’t change the way people think.'”

Ms. Tulino withdrew from him as a result, she told jurors, but Mr. Ali became persistent: He sent “continuous e-mails, voice mails, phone calls”; came to her desk and left notes asking why she wouldn’t answer his calls; even texted her as she attended the funeral of a coworker’s husband, asking “where I was and why wasn’t I answering the phone.”

Mr. Ali complained of being unappreciated, she said at trial, accusing her of causing him ulcers and painting her as “worst person in the world” for being cold to him. Finally he cornered her in a dark area near the freight elevators, she testified.

“You are treating me like a dog,” she said he told her angrily. “How could you do this to me?” Ms. Tulino testified that she was “very, very fearful” as she finally saw “the real face of Shaz Ali,” which she described being “almost like a bear coming at you.”

For some time after that explosion, she said, things calmed down. Ms. Tulino switched jobs again, seeking a promotion that Mr. Ali told her was elusive because other managers believed salacious rumors about her — or because only he recognized her skills, she testified.

Frustrated, Ms. Tulino finally took a job with Mr. Ali as her direct supervisor. It came with a price: She was now “under his complete control all day long,” she said at trial.

Even within his own group, Mr. Ali made Ms. Tulino aware that she faced obstacles: Several co-workers now believed that she was sleeping with Mr. Ali, she testified — and he seemed not only to tolerate these false rumors, but to relish discussing them.

Mr. Ali’s creepiness kept escalating, according to court documents. In her complaint in the case, Ms. Tulino alleged that Mr. Ali asked her for “special pictures” of herself and revealed that he was using her birth date for all his own passwords, she alleged.

Mr. Ali also got physical, she said in court. In one incident, she testified, he grabbed her wrist as they passed in the hallway and spun her around. She was upset because she had just received bad news about her father’s health. “He starts to embrace me and put his face closer to me,” she recalled. “I couldn’t break his grasp.”

Ms. Tulino’s father died shortly afterward, and she began talking with a male coworker who had also lost a parent. Mr. Ali became jealous, according to Ms. Tulino, and told her she shouldn’t be talking to other men. She ignored him.

Finally, Ms. Tulino testified, Mr. Ali called her into his office on November 12, 2014, and again told her to “limit my conversations with that boy — that man.” People were talking about them, Mr. Ali claimed, and now “he has to answer” to the agency’s H.R. director for her actions, she testified.

“It’s always the same story” with Mr. Ali, she said in court. “Someone’s talking about you. I have to protect you about it.”

Except this time, Ms. Tulino testified, she broke the pattern.

“This day was the day,” she told jurors. “This was like a culmination of everything. All the years, all the days, every day …. And I said, I don’t believe you. I don’t believe a thing you’re saying.”

It was then, she recalled, that “Mr. Ali lost his mind.”

“He was slapping himself in the face, calling himself ‘Stupid, stupid — I’m so stupid, I should have left you in [the previous, lesser job] where you belong.'”

In the courtroom, the jury heard a recording that Ms. Tulino had surreptitiously made of the confrontation. Mr. Ali admitted to its content — including his expression of jealousy — and also admitted that he had slapped himself, although he indicated in court that it was more of a “gesture” than a real slap.

Mr. Ali saw Ms. Tulino as a “special friend,” he testified, but he didn’t try to kiss her or force himself on her in any way.

As the November 14 confrontation ended, Ms. Tulino told Mr. Ali she would file a complaint with the agency’s internal EEO office — and Mr. Ali told her in turn that she was “finished.” As she got ready to leave, however, Mr. Ali walked into her cubicle and pushed her against a filing cabinet, she testified.

“He [had] his leg in between my legs,” she told the court. “And he’s holding my arms down and we’re struggling. And he’s trying to kiss me and I’m pushing him off and pushing him off.”

Mr. Ali testified that the incident never happened.

A few days later, Mr. Ali ordered Ms. Tulino to turn in her BlackBerry mobile phone and took other actions that she reported to the agency’s H.R. office as retaliatory. She followed up with an EEO complaint against Mr. Ali.

Meanwhile, Ms. Tulino testified, she was assigned to a new supervisor a level lower than Mr. Ali; frozen out of meetings; and given fewer assignments. “Eventually all of my work was taken away,” she told jurors.

The following May, the EEO investigation ended inconclusively. Although the report recommended a reassignment if possible, Ms. Tulino testified that officials told her in person to “go back to Shaazad Ali, or you have no place here.” Her complaint, she claimed they told her, had “offended the agency.”

Ms. Tulino resigned in early June. She told jurors that her dignity and self-esteem had been destroyed, that she was on multiple medications — including for nightmares — and that “every day is gray.” She has panic attacks “every single day,” she said; she doesn’t have friends, doesn’t socialize, and doesn’t feel comfortable in crowds.

The jury found Mr. Ali not liable on a claim of battery. U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff, meanwhile, dismissed Ms. Tulino’s claim for constructive discharge before it reached the jury — an outcome that her lawyers have appealed. Ms. Tulino’s $2 million award for emotional damages was excessive, Judge Rakoff ruled, knocking it down to a still-hefty $1.5 million while awarding attorney fees of more than $675,000.

Mr. Ali was relieved of his duties immediately after the trial but was allowed to retire with a likely six-figure pension, according to media reports.

» Read Ms. Tulino’s second amended complaint

» Read Judge Rakoff’s rationale for reducing Ms. Tulino’s damages award

The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Tulino v. City of New York. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.

Ms. Tulino was represented at trial by PGP Law Group, LLC.

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