This Bad Boss Created a Hostile Workplace that Triggered a Mother’s Protective Instincts
At first, Nexamije Qorrolli thought that her old employer would be a good place for her daughter to start a career as a dental hygienist.
Instead, Fortesa Qorrolli, barely out of her teens, landed in a highly sexualized atmosphere at Metropolitan Dental Associates in Manhattan, N.Y., according to a lawsuit filed by the daughter — even as her mother, who had previously worked at a different MDA location, rejoined the practice and tried to shield her daughter from harassment.
Mother and daughter, who relied on their jobs to support their family of political refugees, testified that MDA’s office on Broadway was overseen by Mario Orantes, whom they labelled in court as a predator and “animal.” According to the daughter’s complaint, Mr. Orantes would pressure female MDA employees to accept his advances, taking them into vacant examination rooms and rewarding those who surrendered while penalizing anyone who refused.
At trial, Mr. Orantes denied any harassment of his staff. The judge directed jurors to focus narrowly on evidence of the office manager’s behavior toward the younger Ms. Qorrolli, who recounted a number of incidents, including a time when Mr. Orantes grabbed her in an elevator and commented approvingly on her body’s firmness.
The elder Ms. Qorrolli, meanwhile, had decided to shadow her daughter whenever Mr. Orantes pulled her aside, hovering nearby to the irritation of Mr. Orantes, who called her “like Hitler” for her policing, according to testimony.
Both Qorrollis finally quit the dental practice after six years of pressure and gaslighting, according to their testimony. By the end, daughter Fortesa was still fending off Mr. Orantes but had spiraled into depression, panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts, jurors heard.
Mario Orantes is our Bad Boss of the Month.
Two separate federal juries found MDA liable to Fortesa Qorrolli for allowing a hostile work environment. The first panel awarded her about $2.6 million on three claims, but in December 2022 the judge ordered a retrial because, in her view, jurors had improperly punished MDA after hearing numerous allegations about Mr. Orantes that they weren’t supposed to assess for their truth.
At the second trial, in February 2023, a jury again found in favor of Ms. Qorrolli, on a single claim. This time the judge controlled evidence more tightly, and jurors awarded only nominal damages.
Last month the judge declined to order a third trial, which Ms. Qorrolli had requested to reconsider the damages award. The second jury was entitled to find the young plaintiff’s testimony “overwrought,” the judge wrote, and to limit damages accordingly.
Ms. Qorrolli is appealing both outcomes, asking for a reinstatement of the original $2.6 million verdict.
The Qorrolli family arrived in the United States from Albania in 1996 with no money, a single suitcase, and three young children, mother Nexamije testified in court. At that time she was a newly qualified dentist fleeing political unrest; Fortesa, her oldest, was just six.
After taking some U.S. exams, Nexamije became a dental assistant and was hired at MDA’s Brooklyn office, originally working at $7 an hour for dentist and MDA owner Paul Cohen. Subsequently she worked for other dentists and attended community college in the Bronx alongside her daughter, who was following in her footsteps. The women qualified as dental hygienists within a year of each other. Nexamije already had a job in Brooklyn, but she pointed Fortesa back to Dr. Cohen, her first U.S. employer.
“I told her, if Dr. Cohen will ask you, you can let him know that you are my daughter,” the mother testified. “Dr. Cohen hired her [on the] spot.”
Fortesa was assigned to a different MDA office, however, in downtown Manhattan, in the periodontal department. She had just turned 20. Soon afterward, her mother joined her: Having reconnected via Fortesa, Dr. Cohen “begged [Nexamije] to quit her job” and return to MDA, the daughter testified.
Both women thrived at first, and their paychecks became crucial to the Qorrolli family, which had just bought a house and had two younger children to support and, later, put through college. “My dad was working,” the daughter told jurors, “but he wasn’t making enough to pay for mortgage and bills. Everything depended on me and my mom.”
They soon attracted the attention of Mr. Orantes, who had started working for MDA at 17 years old, back in the 1980s, and had risen to become Dr. Cohen’s “right arm” after earning “an extreme amount of trust” as an administrator, according to the dentist’s own testimony.
Mr. Orantes was known within the office as a harasser, the younger Ms. Qorrolli told jurors. Several other employees told her that “Mario has sex with anyone and everyone, whoever he lays his eyes on,” she testified. “And if you don’t give in to his sexual desires, then he will make your life a living hell.”
According to Ms. Qorrolli’s complaint and her testimony, Mr. Orantes gave extra pay, easier work, and even free dental treatments to women who “acquiesced” — allegations that Mr. Orantes denied. Ms. Qorrolli testified that she often witnessed him pulling a particular hygienist into a room for about 20 minutes, after which the hygienist would emerge with smeared lipstick. At one point, she told jurors, she opened the lunch room door to find Mr. Orantes and the hygienist “chest to chest,” the woman’s clothing askew.
Toward both Qorrollis, mother and daughter, Mr. Orantes showed a mix of hostility and frustration, the women testified, frequently complaining to Dr. Cohen about the quality of their work but also demanding extra hours — and, when it came to Fortesa, showing sexual interest.
Mr. Orantes touched her in unwelcome ways, Fortesa testified, and made suggestive comments to her “a few times a week.” Sometimes, she testified, he would demean and berate her in front of Dr. Cohen only to offer her insinuating comfort afterward.
“He would kiss me on the cheek, he would tell me that he loved me and that everything was going to be OK, that he was on my side,” she told jurors. “I told him to back off many times. And when … he couldn’t go as far as he’s gone with other women he would just storm out … And then I wouldn’t see him for a day or so until he made another incident and called me upstairs and [again] threatened to fire me in front of Dr. Cohen.”
“Women need someone to fear with authority in their life,” Mr. Orantes told her another time, according to her complaint.
Mother Nexamije, meanwhile, was trying to keep Mr. Orantes away from her daughter. On one occasion, she testified, “I saw Mario putting hands on Tesa, … pulling her inside the room, closing the door. … I was afraid … When I went to open the door and saw him very close to Tesa, Mario slammed the door on me … He hated me because I was trying to protect her.”
In testimony, Mr. Orantes claimed that all his one-on-one interactions with Fortesa Qorrolli were professional, and that Dr. Cohen was often present on speakerphone.
The Qorrollis’ appeals to Dr. Cohen went nowhere, according to court documents, as the MDA owner stood squarely behind his longtime manager — and indeed, denied at trial that Fortesa Qorrolli had ever complained about sexual behavior by Mr. Orantes. The Qorrollis said she finally did, in early 2015; in a deposition that wasn’t allowed into evidence, a fellow employee bolstered their claim.
In another disputed piece of evidence, an anonymous fax arrived at the MDA offices later in 2015 accusing Mr. Orantes of targeting multiple young women employees — and of other wrongdoing besides. Jurors saw this fax during the first trial, but the judge later called that a mistake and excluded the document from the second trial, although she allowed Ms. Qorrolli’s lawyer to describe its general contents.
Dr. Cohen, to whom the fax was addressed, testified that he had investigated the allegations and found them to be untrue.
At trial, Fortesa Qorrolli said she felt “humiliated” by Dr. Cohen’s dismissal of her complaints, testifying that he called her “crazy.”
“I was in shock because I thought he actually cared,” she told jurors. “I trusted him, but he didn’t do anything about it.”
Instead, the cycle of blame and harassment simply continued, she testified: “I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to end my life. The pain was really unbearable.”
At trial, Fortesa’s mother said she was “heartbroken” by the change she saw in her daughter at MDA. The younger Ms. Qorrolli used to be “the light of the family,” according to testimony, but after a few years at MDA, she became withdrawn and prone to anger, ultimately seeking psychological help. Among other things, Fortesa reflexively rubbed at her nose so often that she perforated the cartilage and caused lasting breathing problems, jurors heard.
“I lost my Tesa,” Nexamije told them. “I miss … how she used to be before.”
Finally, in May 2016, Fortesa Qorrolli texted Dr. Cohen and told him that neither woman could work at MDA any longer. “It was either me leaving or completely losing myself there,” she testified. “Even now … I never drive [near the MDA office] because those panic attacks just start kicking in.”
A few months later she filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In 2018, she was cleared to file her federal lawsuit.
After the favorable first trial verdict, U.S. District Court Judge Denise Cote ruled that jurors had reached a valid verdict on liability, but that the damages they awarded — $575,000 in compensation and a further $2 million as punishment — were disproportionate to the facts of the case, and also to benchmarks and awards in comparable cases, indicating a problem that should be solved by a retrial.
The liability finding at the second trial was similarly valid, the judge ruled, but she found no legal basis for vacating the token damages award — a symbolic $1 — as “a miscarriage of justice.”
“[T]he jury may have found that much of [Fortesa] Qorrolli’s highly emotional testimony was incredible or irrelevant to the charges of sexual harassment,” wrote Judge Cote. “Alternatively, the jury could have reasonably concluded that any compensatory damages award would have been purely speculative.”
The case is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
At least as of late 2022, Mr. Orantes continued to work for MDA, according to testimony. Both the Qorrollis, mother and daughter, found new jobs after their departure from the practice. Last year, Fortesa Qorrolli gave birth to a daughter of her own, Sierra.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Qorrolli v. Metropolitan Dental Associates, D.D.S. — 225 Broadway, P.C. 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.
Fortesa Qorrolli was represented by Derek Smith Law Group, PLLC in New York.