A landlord with properties in and around the city of Elizabeth has agreed to pay $4.5 million to resolve a federal Fair Housing Act lawsuit alleging he sexually harassed tenants and prospective tenants for more than 15 years.
Joseph Centanni, 74, of Mountainside, is still facing criminal charges brought in March by the Union County Prosecutor’s Office for allegedly coercing 20 tenants into sexual acts in exchange for financial relief. Centanni is charged with 13 counts of second-degree sexual assault, one count of second-degree attempted sexual assault and 21 counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual contact.
The $4.5 million is the largest monetary settlement the Department of Justice has obtained in a case alleging sexual harassment in housing.
Centanni, who has owned hundreds of rental units scattered across 18 residential properties in Elizabeth, agreed to settle the lawsuit brought by the federal Department of Justice in August 2020.
According to the lawsuit, Centanni’s pattern of harassment dates back at least 15 years to 2005. Centanni targeted women, as well as men who are gay or bisexual, the DOJ said.
READ: Federal lawsuit alleges landlord threatened to evict tenants who refused sexual advances
READ: Elizabeth landlord facing sex crime charges accused by seven more tenants
According to the Union County Prosecutor's Office, the victims would meet Centanni in his office on the 200 block of West Jersey Street in downtown Elizabeth, and the sex acts took place in laundry, storage or boiler rooms at his properties or in a sample apartment shown to prospective renters.
Centanni demanded sexual favors, like oral sex, from current and prospective tenants to get or keep their housing or pay reduced rent, according to the DOJ. Centanni touched tenants and applicants in a way that was sexual and unwelcome, and made unwelcome sexual comments and advances to tenants and applicants, the lawsuit alleged.
The complaint also alleged that Centanni initiated or threatened to initiate eviction actions against tenants who refused his sexual advances. Centanni also allegedly exposed himself to current and prospective tenants.
In one example, the lawsuit alleges, in 2019 a female tenant who had agreed to move out met with Centanni and asked if she could stay because she was having trouble finding another apartment.
Centanni then asked her "how bad do you want your apartment?" and took her to an empty storage room where he exposed himself and asked for oral sex.
"Because she felt she had no choice, the tenant submitted to Centanni's sexual demand," the lawsuit stated. "After this incident, Centanni allowed her to stay in the apartment."
The $4,392,950 in monetary damages awarded in the settlement will compensate numerous women and men who were sexually harassed by Centanni. He must also pay a $107,050 civil penalty to the United States, the maximum civil penalty allowed under the Fair Housing Act.
Centanni has sold all his residential rental properties and, according to the settlement, is barred from owning and managing residential rental properties in the future.
Centanni participated in the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program (also known as Section 8) and received approximately $102,000 each month in Housing Choice Voucher payments, according to the DOJ.
Centanni also will be required to dismiss housing court judgments obtained in proceedings deemed to be retaliatory and take steps to repair the credit of any affected tenants, the DOJ said.
“This lawsuit and historic settlement send a clear message that the Department (of Justice) will not stand by idly as landlords abuse their power to prey on vulnerable tenants,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement. “Sexual harassment of tenants is abhorrent and unlawful, and has devastating consequences on victims."
Raymond Londa, an attorney representing Centanni, said Centanni did not admit wrongdoing in the consent decree.
“Mr. Centanni settled the matter to avoid protracted litigation,” Londa said. “Mr. Centanni continues to deny the allegations.”
Individuals who believe that they were subjected to sexual harassment by Centanni should contact the Housing Discrimination Tip Line toll free, at 1-833- 591-0291, and select option number one to leave a message. Individuals can also contact the U.S. Attorney’s Office Civil Rights Hotline at 855-281-3339. Individuals may also e-mail the Justice Department at [email protected] or submit a report online.
Contributing: Associated Press
Email: [email protected]
Mike Deak is a reporter for mycentraljersey.com. To get unlimited access to his articles on Somerset and Hunterdon counties, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on MyCentralJersey.com: NJ landlord accused of demanding sex from tenants to pay millions
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