Over the past decade, New York real estate billionaire Charles S. Cohen has become a leading patron of art-house cinema. He has distributed a string of foreign language Oscar contenders, amassed a vast library of classic films and bought specialty theaters in the U.K., France and the U.S.
But greater prominence in the film industry invites greater scrutiny, especially now. In October, three female employees sued Cohen’s real estate company in federal court in New York, accusing Cohen of bullying and creating a hostile work environment for women.
Their claims echo those in three earlier lawsuits, which accused Cohen of firing people who took days off to get medical treatment. One of those suits also alleged that of the 50 employees in the company’s executive offices, none was Black. The company acknowledged that was true in a 2014 court filing.
In talking with Variety, the plaintiffs in the new case are speaking publicly for the first time. They say the company was set up to serve Cohen’s whims, and that employees lived in fear of being berated or fired if they failed to meet his impossible standards.
“It’s about time everybody knows about the other side of this person,” one of the plaintiffs, Corinne Arazi, tells Variety. “The company is run as an autocracy. Everything and everyone revolves around Cohen, like the planets around the sun.”
Arazi was Cohen’s executive assistant for more than three years. She sat just outside his office and learned to absorb the verbal abuse and manage his moods, she says. Another assistant, Roseann Hylemon, worked for him for two years before she couldn’t take it anymore and was transferred to another desk. She, too, joined the suit.
Evelyn Julia, a former leasing administrator, described a demeaning office culture where older male bosses felt free to mistreat their female subordinates.
“It was appalling,” Julia says. “I just couldn’t understand how people could behave that way. Everyone in upper management was of a certain age where that’s what they did back in the day. It was pretty depressing.”
According to the complaint, Julia was sexually harassed by a senior vice president at the company. She alleges that Stephen Fredericks, her direct supervisor, made gratuitous remarks about her appearance, bragged about his sexual history, made unwanted inquiries about her love life and occasionally came up behind her to touch her shoulders or kiss her cheek.
She says she was initially ecstatic about landing the job, but that it quickly “tumbled.”
“It went from getting up in the morning excited to go to work to looking in my closet and going, ‘OK, I can’t wear that because that’s too tight,’” she says. “There was no way you could bring any type of complaint. If you complained, you knew you would get fired.”
The suit alleges that female employees bore the brunt of the verbal abuse. Arazi says the company was structured with a clear hierarchy based on race and gender.
“It was white men in suits and more white men in suits,” Arazi says. “And then you have women at the administrative level. You have very few men and women of color. This is how this company is built.”
In a statement, Cohen Brothers Realty Corp. said that the women are seeking to enrich themselves through baseless allegations. The company also said that it does not tolerate sexual harassment.
“Cohen Brothers Realty Corporation strongly believes that the allegations by these plaintiffs lack credibility and are wholly without merit,” the company said. “Cohen Brothers Realty takes pride in treating all employees with equality and respect; many of our employees have been with us for over twenty years. We will continue to defend our position through the proper legal process.”
The company also made available two employees to provide the other side of the story. Madeline Marcus, a senior vice president, and Stephanie Waller, an office leasing administrator, say the complaints were overblown.
“They do appreciate me,” says Waller, who is half Black and half Puerto Rican. “When I’ve had a problem, they have always been there supporting me, including Charles.”
She identified several other Black employees, including the head of security.
Adds Marcus: “I found Charles to be very approachable. He’s gracious in many ways.”
Cohen’s father founded Cohen Brothers Realty in the 1950s with his two brothers. Charles Cohen initially explored a career in the entertainment industry before joining the family firm and ultimately taking over.
The company owns office towers and design centers, including the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, which is home to A24 Films and A3 Artists Agency. Forbes estimates Cohen’s net worth at $3.5 billion, much of it stemming from the real estate empire he inherited. In interviews, Cohen has described that business as his “day job.” His true passion is film, particularly French New Wave, and he went so far as to write a film quiz book called “Trivia Mania” in 1985. He now owns a library of more than 800 titles, including Buster Keaton films, the Merchant Ivory catalog and classics of British and French cinema.
Cohen also owns Landmark Theatres, which operates 45 cinemas across the U.S., and Curzon Cinemas in the U.K., as well as La Pagode, a historic art-house theater in Paris that is closed for restoration.
Arazi, who is French, went to work for Cohen in December 2016. On her first day, she says, he asked her to bring him a glass of water with ice while he was on a video conference with executives in Fort Lauderdale.
“He called me, clicked his fingers and said, ‘Come back,’” Arazi says. “He said, ‘I will not touch this glass. Take it back. You put your finger there. I cannot drink from this glass.’” In front of everyone, he instructed on how to hold a glass from the bottom. “From this little thing, it just kept on,” she says.
Hylemon says she experienced something similar when she brought Cohen a cheeseburger during her first week on the job. As she turned to leave his office, she heard dishes flying across the room. “I don’t eat cheese!” he yelled.
The assistants say they felt subjected to Cohen’s violent moods. They were to stay at their desks at all times and were forbidden from going to the bathroom without permission, according to the lawsuit.
“He would always find something wrong and yell at me in front of people,” Hylemon says. “He just had to feel that he was in charge, with the yelling.”
If Cohen was especially unhappy, she says that he would say, “I’m going to kill you.”
Arazi says that Cohen routinely belittled her. He referred casually to his assistants — within their earshot — as “the two stooges.” Arazi says he once told her, out of the blue, “It’s not enough to be pretty, you need to have a brain too.” Once, when he did not get his copy of the Wall Street Journal, she says he berated her and made her repeat after him, “I must give you the Wall Street Journal every day.”
She says that he veered from being courteous to insulting. “He could not just give a compliment,” she says. “If he said something good, I knew next time I would get slapped in the face. Managing this man and his mood is a lot of work.”
Arazi says that Cohen would often repeat a motto he had inherited from his father: “You don’t get a heart attack. You give heart attacks.”
The company was sued three times from 2010 to 2014 for allegedly discriminating against employees who were disabled. In one case, the company’s treasurer was fired shortly after having a brain tumor removed, according to his suit. Though he had returned to work, he was told that “things were not working out” and was let go, according to the suit.
Fernando Giglio, an accountant, was fired a few days after getting diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, according to his lawsuit. He was told that his skills did not match his position. The company’s general counsel also sued in 2014, alleging that he had been fired after going to a medical appointment for a heart condition.
“When current employees become disabled, or are perceived as disabled, Mr. Cohen promptly terminates their employment,” the general counsel, Barry Bernstein, alleged in the complaint. “The employees are afraid to report any disabilities or take any time off.”
All three suits settled out of court.
The time-off policy also figured in the newest lawsuit, which alleges that the company refused to allow employees to work from home when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March. According to the complaint, employees who raised concerns about the virus were told that they were “overreactors.”
Hylemon, who has multiple sclerosis, got a doctor’s note saying she should be allowed to work from home. She was told she would have to use her vacation time. Even after New York ordered non-essential businesses to close, the company continued to ask people to come in, according to the complaint.
Hylemon stayed at home and used up her three weeks of vacation time. After that, she was furloughed without pay or benefits — and has not heard from the company since. Arazi and Julia also took time off to avoid coming to the office. They were both furloughed as well at the beginning of May.
“I know it was retaliation because we opted to stay out of the office and refused to go along with violating Gov. Cuomo’s stay-at-home order,” Hylemon says. “I felt like they thought we were looking for an escape out of there. We weren’t. We just wanted to be protected from COVID. We didn’t want to get sick.”
On March 19, Cohen flew with his family on a private jet to Antigua, where they stayed on his $70 million yacht. There, Arazi says that Cohen gave the order to furlough Landmark’s employees.
“He was on his yacht and giving orders to essentially fire people,” Arazi says. “He was asking people to come into the office while he was there in a boat in the middle of the ocean.”
A person close to Cohen says that the trip was preplanned, and that he was not seeking to flee the pandemic.
Julia, meanwhile, says she still has not retrieved some personal items from her desk at work. She left sweaters, family photos and shoes, and asked if she could come get them.
“They said, ‘If you pick that up, we’re gonna consider that a resignation,’” she tells Variety. Indicating that she left voluntarily would make it harder for her to bring a lawsuit, so she has left the items there.
In retrospect, Julia says she got comfortable with the salary she was earning, which made it tough to leave.
“You get sort of sucked in, and you put up with it,” she says. Now, she adds, “it feels amazing standing up and saying, ‘No mas.’ People like him cannot continue to treat people that way. I feel empowered by that. It’s gotta stop.”