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Judge tosses suit against Assembly in Lopez case

Assemblyman Vito Lopez sits during a session at

Assemblyman Vito Lopez sits during a session at the Capitol in Albany on Jan. 14, 2013. Credit: AP

ALBANY -- A Manhattan judge has ruled that the State Assembly cannot be held liable for ex-Assemb. Vito Lopez's alleged sexual harassment of two female staffers.

State Supreme Court Judge Joan Kenney said the legislative body couldn't be held responsible because it wasn't the staffers' employer; Lopez was. She dismissed the lawsuit -- filed by Victoria Burhans and Chloe Rivera -- in a decision dated March 7.

Kenney said the claims against Lopez were "alarming" and noted there had been previous complaints against the former Brooklyn power broker.

But the judge said the lawsuit failed on two grounds: No one other than Lopez had the authority to hire or fire the women; and, for the Assembly to be liable, there would have to be evidence that the chamber "encourages, condones or approves the unlawful discriminatory acts."

"Plaintiffs do not set forth any allegations that any other Assembly member had the power to make personnel decisions on behalf of Lopez," Kenney wrote. The judge left open the possibility that Burhans and Rivera could refile a claim against the state, rather than the Assembly. Their lawyer said the case isn't dead.

"The decision was not on the merits of plaintiffs' sexual harassment claims," attorney Kevin Mintzer said in an email. "We are confident that we will ultimately establish that the Assembly and the state are plaintiffs' employers and that they are responsible for the sexual harassment experienced by Ms. Burhans and Ms. Rivera."

Assembly officials declined to comment.

Burhans and Rivera still have a separate federal lawsuit against Lopez and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) to hold them personally responsible.

The Lopez scandal first broke in 2012, when Silver disclosed he approved a secret agreement with two other former Lopez staffers to settle sexual harassment claims. The settlement was for $135,000 -- $103,000 of it in taxpayers' money. Burhans and Rivera filed their lawsuit months later.

In 2013, a special prosecutor determined that no chargeable crime had occurred, but a separate civil investigation determined Lopez's conduct violated state Public Officers' Law. As the Assembly prepared to expel him, Lopez resigned May 20 to launch what became an unsuccessful campaign for New York City Council.

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