As the three-year mark approaches in a court battle with ex-newspaper carriers claiming to have been sexually abused by a Democrat and Chronicle circulation department district supervisor, Gannett Co. Inc. is seeking to take the former carriers’ Child Victims Act cases out of the state court system and turn them over to the New York Workers’ Compensation Board.
If that legal gambit succeeds, it could entirely scotch the former carriers’ case, the Gannett attorney proposing the switch asserts in a letter to the judge presiding over the case.
For former D&C carrier Rick Bates, the attempt to move the case to the workers’ comp board is only the latest in a lengthy series of delays and roadblocks Gannett has thrown in his way.
The first of several former newspaper carriers to sue Gannett under the CVA, Bates says he has spent years trying unsuccessfully to get Gannett to acknowledge and apologize for the repeated sexual abuse he suffered as an 11-year-old at the hands of his adult route supervisor, Jack Lazeroff.
Lazeroff died in 2003. According to Bates’ and other former carriers’ court complaints, Lazeroff was fired from the job he had immediately before going to work for Gannett for openly engaging in sexual encounters with teenage boys at work and likely was fired by the D&C for the same reason. Lazeroff also had brushes with area police over public sexual advances toward young boys including D&C paperboys, the complaints allege.
Workers’ comp question
Gannett attorney Andrew Dean, a senior associate in Harter, Secrest & Emery’s Rochester office, maintains in a letter to the presiding judge, Erie County Supreme Court Justice Deborah Chimes, that as employees of the D&C, the carriers should have applied for workers’ comp in the 1980s.
Though they had not done so as 11- or 12-year-olds, the ex-carriers could have filed workers’ comp claims before they sought satisfaction under the CVA. Applying for workers’ comp is after all “a simple online process,” the Gannett attorney states.
Workers’ comp is a state-sponsored insurance program meant to pay employees who suffer on-the-job injuries or get sick as a result of workplace conditions and to limit employers’ liability. While it is meant to cover a panoply of physical injuries and ills, whether such injuries include sexual abuse is not clear.
New York instructs employees who have been sexually harassed at work to seek help not from the Workers’ Compensation Board but from the state’s Division of Human Rights. The DHR can impose fines of up to $250,000 on employers found guilty of allowing harassment to take place.
Workers’ comp cancels beneficiaries’ right to sue for the same injury they received workers’ comp benefits for. Sexual harassment complaints acknowledged by agencies like New York’s DHR can be a basis for legal claims against employers.
Gannett first raised the workers’ comp issue in a November 2019 answer to Bates’ complaint, but did not propose moving the CVA cases to the workers’ comp system until now. The attempt to remove the cases from state court comes as Gannett was to have begun supplying documents to meet the CVA plaintiffs’ discovery demands.
How Chimes will treat Gannett’s workers’ comp move is not yet known.
Whatever conclusion Chimes ultimately makes, the move could delay the already drawn-out CVA cases for months or longer.
If the gambit succeeds, and the Workers’ Compensation Board takes over the case, the former carriers’ complaints could be time-barred under the Workers Compensation Act, Dean notes in the July 28 letter, which would their chance of being compensated to zero.
The original complaint
Seven former newspaper carriers including Bates have been pressing CVA claims against Gannett since 2019. All allege they were repeatedly sexually molested by Lazeroff, a district supervisor overseeing the then 11- to 14-year-olds who delivered the D&C to subscribers in the 1980s.
Bates’ October 2019 complaint was filed more than a year after he started corresponding with a D&C reporter in September 2018 in hopes of getting the Rochester daily to report on Lazeroff’s alleged sexual abuse of minors including himself.
Bates reached out to David Andreatta, then a D&C reporter, after reading accounts under Andreatta’s byline detailing claims of Catholic priests’ alleged sexual abuse against children.
Beset by hundreds of such claims under the CVA, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester filed a still-ongoing Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2019.
In an anguished September 2018 letter, Bates told Andreatta that he hoped the D&C would give equal treatment to similar abuses against him and others committed by the newspaper’s own employee.
Exhaustively detailing numerous alleged unwanted sexual encounters with Lazeroff he suffered as an 11- and 12-year-old, Bates, then 48, wrote that as a result of the abuse he suffered, “I contemplate suicide, even though I have a beautiful family and two young kids of my own. I have let my work go to hell and am staring at ruin coming from so many angles now. I am unraveling.”
Gannett’s first response to Bates came in an October 2018 email from Michael Kane, who at the time was the company’s local markets chief operating officer and today serves as senior vice president/strategy & operations, stating that no one at the paper “recalls any complaints or allegations of the kind that you describe, either against Mr. Lazeroff, or any other person.”
While Kane assured Bates that Gannett took his claims seriously and sympathized with him, the Gannett official wrote that “absent any corroborating evidence, and given the passage of time, there is simply no basis for liability on the part of the company, or for a financial settlement merely to avoid possible adverse publicity.
“Accordingly, while we remain deeply sympathetic, there’s nothing more that we can do, and are therefore closing-out this matter,” Kane concluded.
In a Feb. 13, 2019 email, a contrite Andreatta apologized for failing to respond to Bates earlier, explaining that “due to the sensitive nature of your email, your message was forwarded to folks far above my pay grade at Gannett’s corporate offices—lawyers and human resources people—who eventually reached out to you. I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s what I was told. I was left with the impression that responding to your correspondence would be handled by people outside my newsroom.”
Six days later, Andreatta wrote a second email informing Bates that he and other D&C reporters had “quietly done some poking around” and turned up information that seemed to indicate that “the story you relayed to me was not an isolated incident (and) there may have been other victims of Lazeroff.”
Months later, after Bates filed his CVA complaint against Gannett in mid-October 2019, the D&C published an article detailing Bates’ accusations.
Reporter Steve Orr stated in the article that after Bates’ 2018 plea for an investigation, he and other reporters had indeed found evidence that Lazeroff, “who worked in the newspaper’s circulation department in the 1980s, might have been a sexual predator — and Democrat and Chronicle paperboys might have been among his prey.”
Orr detailed evidence he and other reporters had unearthed of Lazeroff’s sexual misconduct including arrests and an account of a D&C worker taking a complaint over Lazeroff’s sexual advances toward his son from a paperboy’s distraught father.
Bates was one of two former carriers who urged the D&C to investigate Lazeroff’s alleged sexual predation, the article states. The other, identified in the article under an assumed name, did not want his identity revealed.
Despite facts turned up in their nearly yearlong investigation, “D&C reporters waited until a lawsuit was filed to publish their findings in a case involving their own company,” Orr wrote, stating no explanation for the delay.
Gannett spokesperson Stephanie Tackach declined to comment, Orr wrote. “The company could not find records detailing Lazeroff’s precise period of service with the company,” the article states.
The article acknowledges Kane’s 2018 letter and quotes Bates in 2019 as expressing frustration at Gannett’s apparent unwillingness to take responsibility for Lazeroff’s alleged conduct despite evidence its own reporters had uncovered.
By the time Orr’s article was published, Andreatta had left the D&C to move to City, where he serves today as the publication’s editor. Like his former D&C colleagues, Andreatta at City wrote several articles detailing the CVA claims of Bates and other former carriers. Orr also followed up with updates as more former carriers filed claims. Local television stations and the Rochester Beacon also reported on the lawsuits.
Several CVA complaints telling similar stories to Bates’ followed his filing. All the former carriers allege that Lazeroff extensively preyed on them, touching them sexually in his car, at donut shop counters and on at least one occasion in a paperboy’s own home.
Lazeroff instructed his victims to tell no one about the incidents, the court complaints state. Gannett personnel at the time were aware of Lazeroff’s activities, the filings allege. One brief asserts that while Gannett fired Lazeroff for molesting paperboys, the company named financial improprieties as the reason for his dismissal in Lazeroff’s personnel file.
In a 2019 interview with the Rochester Beacon, one of the seven former carriers pressing CVA claims against Gannett, Paul Tracy, described several instances in which Lazeroff touched him inappropriately including in his own home.
After Lazeroff assaulted him in his home, Tracy told the Beacon, his father angrily complained to the D&C and he never saw Lazeroff again, but neither Tracy nor his parents were told if Gannett took any action against Lazeroff.
While their CVA complaints have plodded through the courts, Bates notes, Tracy’s father died, eliminating a witness who could have testified against Gannett in a trial.
The seven cases have been consolidated and are being heard by Chimes, one of several judges assigned by the court system to preside over CVA complaints.
Neither Dean nor the former carriers’ lawyers have yet filed briefs fully laying out their positions on the workers’ comp issue. Saying they were reluctant to go on the record before filing such court papers, attorneys for the former carriers declined to discuss the workers’ comp gambit.
Still, says Bates’ lawyer, Georgia Kosmakos, an associate with the Long Island-based firm Sweeney Reich & Bolz LLP, the sluggish pace of the former carriers’ CVA case flies in the face of the quick resolution to long-denied sexual abuse claims lawmakers envisioned when they passed the 2019 law.
Katie Shipp agrees. A partner with the Manhattan-based Marsh Law Firm PLLC, Shipp represents six former carriers.
If Chimes follows the schedule Dean is asking her to set, lawyers on both sides would spend the next three months writing and filing briefs solely on the question of whether to call a temporary halt to the case.
Chimes would hear oral arguments on that question sometime after mid-November, when Dean proposes the last arguments for or against a delay to be filed.
Under Dean’s suggested schedule, only after the question of whether or not to freeze any other proceedings in the case is settled would lawyers start to file papers arguing the pros and cons of turning the CVA complaints over to the Workers’ Compensation Board. A debate over the merits that question could stretch well into 2023.