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A lawsuit coursing through New York State Supreme Court alleges that Jarret Willis, a Black real estate agent who previously worked at well-known luxury firm Bespoke Real Estate, was routinely called “Jafar” — the name of the primary villain (who has brown skin) in the 1992 Disney animated film “Aladdin” — by employees and leadership while employed at the firm.
About one month after starting his employment with Bespoke in 2021, Willis was promoted to vice president of Bespoke Parallel, a division of the luxury brokerage that focuses on secondary markets in which it has a smaller presence. Despite his elevated position in the company, Willis was verbally and in text messages called racist epithets by the firm’s secretary Lisa Kling and Cody Vichinsky, one of Bespoke’s founding partners, in addition to being called “Jafar” by multiple employees, the lawsuit claims.
“But it was [the defendants], and not plaintiffs, who acted in a cartoonish manner beneath the decency of any person with a conscience, and it is they and their misdeeds which shall share, in a metaphorical sense, Jafar’s fate as a prisoner of the lamp,” the complaint states, cuttingly. “They shall find themselves imprisoned economically by the damages that will be imposed upon them.”
Following his resignation from the brokerage in December 2022, Willis filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the New York State Division of Human rights in February 2023. The discrimination lawsuit, Jarret Willis and Harlan Goldberg v. Bespoke Real Estate LLC, will officially be filed once the EEOC processes Willis’ complaint and issues a Right To Sue Letter, Willis’ attorney Adam Leitman Bailey told Inman.
Bespoke Real Estate denied all allegations in an email sent to Inman.
“Bespoke unequivocally denies these false and untrue allegations, which arose relating to an ongoing attempt to collect unjustified commissions from the company,” an email sent by Managing Director Joseph De Sane stated. “Sadly, a salacious and fictitious narrative has been created and disseminated in an effort to support this unjustified attempt to collect commission. Bespoke has legally responded to the matter and looks forward to the opportunity to dispute these allegations. We vigorously deny any and all of these false allegations.”
Due to backlogs at the EEOC, it is uncertain exactly when Willis’ complaint will be processed.
Willis’ former colleague at Bespoke, Harlan Goldberg who is white, is also named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, in which he details the antisemitism he faced by Bespoke’s leadership, including being called a “Jewish American princess” by founding partner Zachary Vichinsky. The lawsuit also alleges that both Vichinskys often used the slur “kike” around the office in reference to Jewish individuals while in Goldberg’s presence.
In addition, Goldberg filed on Tuesday a separate lawsuit against Bespoke Real Estate LLC for wrongful termination, unpaid commission and punitive damages. Goldberg also claims he was terminated in September 2022, in part, because he raised concerns about Willis being demoted from his vice president role one month earlier, and Willis’ treatment from Bespoke’s co-founders.
Willis claims he was demoted in August 2022 as retaliation for contesting how much he was owed for recent transactions.
The discrimination lawsuit details a number of occasions in which members of Bespoke casually used racial slurs around the office.
On one occasion, after Willis asked Cody Vichinsky what they should get for lunch, Vichinsky replied, “How about some watermelon and fried chicken, you n—–?” the discrimination complaint reads.
The complaint also relays a separate occasion, where Zachary Vichinsky was on a call with Willis and others and said, in regards to a purchase Cody Vichinsky was considering, “It’s hard because [Cody] spends his money like a f—– n—–.”
Text messages from Kling shared with Inman by Adam Leitman Bailey also regularly employed the word n—– and similar slurs, including “Lmao so n—–ish,” in reference to a new real estate salesperson license Willis received from New York State in October 2022, on which Willis’ headshot shows a glimpse of the orange shirt he was wearing that day.
“The orange shirt really makes you like an inmate,” Kling also texted.
In regards to the Jafar epithet, Bespoke employees also ultimately started using the pejorative nickname as a verb to suggest that Willis should con friends and clients into doing deals with Bespoke Real Estate, the lawsuit alleges.
“When Willis asked why [Bespoke leadership] utilized that moniker, Z. Vichinsky replied that it was because ‘you look like Jafar’ and, like Jafar, Willis is an evil sorcerer who conjures things up and manipulates his friends,” the complaint reads.
“My client realizes that he’s walking in the shoes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks,” Leitman Bailey told Inman, “and that this is the 2023 version of civil rights in New York and the United States of America.”
“My job is to make sure that we win this case for him and that we send the message so racial discrimination never occurs again, period.”
The discrimination suit notes that the last straw for Willis was when he learned, “to his horror,” in December 2022 that his company-issued email account password had been set to “Jafar24!”
Bespoke Real Estate targets its representation for properties priced at $10 million and above. The firm, which is headquartered in New York City, the Hamptons and Miami, has sold more than $8 billion in transactions.
The National Association of Realtors’ 2022 Member Profile shows that 77 percent of Realtors are white, highlighting the significant disparity in diversity in the profession. Just 8 percent of Realtors are Black.
The town of Southampton, where Bespoke’s Hamptons office is located, is similarly skewed in terms of its racial makeup — it is 83 percent white and 5 percent Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.