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New Jersey landlord to pay historic $4.5 million settlement in federal sexual harassment suit

The agreement with Joseph Centanni is the largest in the Justice Department's history to resolve allegations of sexual harassment in housing, officials said.

A New Jersey landlord will pay a historic $4.5 million settlement in a federal lawsuit alleging that he sexually harassed susceptible tenants for more than 15 years, including asking for sexual favors, federal prosecutors announced Tuesday.

The man, Joseph Centanni, 74, of Mountainside, who has owned hundreds of rental units in and near Elizabeth, agreed to the multimillion-dollar settlement to resolve a Fair Housing Act lawsuit that seeks to protect tenants from harassment and discrimination, the Justice Department said in a statement.

The settlement, which federal prosecutors said must still be approved by the U.S. District Court for New Jersey, “is the largest monetary settlement the department has ever obtained in a case alleging sexual harassment in housing.”

Under the terms of the proposed consent decree, Centanni would pay $4,392,950 in damages to tenants and prospective tenants “harmed by his harassment,” the statement said.

He would also pay an additional $107,050 civil penalty to the U.S. government, the maximum civil penalty allowed under the Fair Housing Act, the statement said.  

“This lawsuit and historic settlement send a clear message that the Department will not stand by idly as landlords abuse their power to prey on vulnerable tenants,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

“Sexual harassment of tenants is abhorrent and unlawful, and has devastating consequences on victims," Clarke said. "The Justice Department stands as committed as ever to aggressively pursuing landlords and housing providers who engage in this violative and threatening conduct.”

Centanni has sold all of his properties as part of the settlement, the statement said. He is also permanently banned “from owning and managing residential rental properties in the future.”

Centanni’s lawyer, Raymond Londa, said Tuesday that Centanni maintains his innocence.

“Mr. Centanni settled the matter to avoid protracted litigation,” Londa said. “The consent decree does not in any way, shape or form constitute an admission or acknowledgment of wrongdoing or liability by Mr. Centanni. He continues to deny the allegations made in this and in other cases.”

The complaint, which was filed in August 2020, alleged that Centanni demanded sexual favors, such as oral sex, to get or keep housing, the Justice Department statement said. He also offered housing benefits, such as reduced rent, in exchange for sexual favors and touched tenants and applicants in a way that was sexual and unwanted, the statement said.

Centanni harassed women, as well as men who are gay or bisexual, the statement said.

One such example occurred in 2019, according to the complaint, which was seen by NBC News. A female tenant approached Centanni about difficulty paying her rent. Centanni offered to connect her to rental assistance and asked what she would do for him in exchange, the suit said. He then took her to an empty apartment, where he asked her for a massage and exposed himself, the complaint said.

The Justice Department said in its release that separate, ongoing criminal prosecutions against Centanni have been brought by the Union County prosecutor.

The prosecutor's office has accused Centanni of coercing 20 tenants into sexual acts in exchange for financial relief, the release said. 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 release said.

Centanni has remained free on bail since he was charged in March, reported. He is next scheduled to appear in state court next month, it reported.