Debrahlee Lorenzana :: Too Hot for Citibank?

Everything about Debrahlee Lorenzana is hot. Even her name sizzles. At five-foot-six and 125 pounds, with soft eyes and flawless bronze skin, she is J.Lo curves meets Jessica Simpson rack meets Audrey Hepburn elegance—a head-turning beauty.

In many ways, the story of her life has been about getting attention from men—both the wanted and the unwanted kind. But when she got fired last summer from her job as a banker at a Citibank branch in Midtown—her bosses cited her work performance—she got even hotter. She sued Citigroup, claiming that she was fired solely because her bosses thought she was too hot.

This is the way Debbie Lorenzana tells it: Her bosses told her they couldn’t concentrate on their work because her appearance was too distracting. They ordered her to stop wearing turtlenecks. She was also forbidden to wear pencil skirts, three-inch heels, or fitted business suits. Lorenzana, a 33-year-old single mom, pointed out female colleagues whose clothing was far more revealing than hers: “They said their body shapes were different from mine, and I drew too much attention,” she says.

As Lorenzana’s lawsuit puts it, her bosses told her that “as a result of the shape of her figure, such clothes were purportedly ‘too distracting’ for her male colleagues and supervisors to bear.”

“Men are kind of drawn to her,” says Tanisha Ritter, a friend and former colleague who also works as a banker and praises Lorenzana’s work habits. “I’ve seen men turn into complete idiots around her. But it’s not her fault that they act this way, and it shouldn’t be her problem.” Because Citibank made Lorenzana sign a mandatory-arbitration clause as a condition of her employment, the case will never end up before a jury or judge. An arbitrator will decide. Citibank officials won’t comment on the suit.

Her attorney, Jack Tuckner, who calls himself a “sex-positive” women’s-rights lawyer, is the first one to say his client is a babe. But so what? For him, it all boils down to self-control. “It’s like saying,” Tuckner argues, “that we can’t think anymore ’cause our penises are standing up—and we cannot think about you except in a sexual manner—and we can’t look at you without wanting to have sexual intercourse with you. And it’s up to you, gorgeous woman, to lessen your appeal so that we can focus!” This isn’t your typical sexual-harassment lawsuit, if there is such a thing. For one thing, such suits often claim that women are coerced into looking more sexy or are subjected to being pawed. Lorenzana claims that her bosses basically told her she was just too attractive. And when she raised hell and refused to do anything about it—as if there was anything she really could do about it—she lost her job.

Debbie Lorenzana—whose mother is Puerto Rican and father is Italian—came to New York from Puerto Rico 12 years ago. She was 21 and pregnant, and had a degree as an emergency medical technician from a technical college in Manatí, a small city on the northern coast. The father, she says, didn’t want to have anything to do with her or the baby. So she moved back to the States, where she had lived in her mid-teens (pinballing between relatives’ houses and group homes), and took care of her elderly grandparents in Connecticut. After her son was born, she moved to Queens to stay with a friend. Then she got her first job in finance: working as a sales representative at the Municipal Credit Union, in 2002. She moved to Jersey City and worked long hours. She was successful.

In April 2003, the Municipal Credit Union named her its sales rep of the month. On the other hand, she says, a manager once called her into his office to ask her opinion of a photograph. The picture he called up on his computer was of his penis. She complained about the incident. In her June 2003 resignation letter—written just two months after she was honored as a top employee—she wrote, “Due to the complaint I made regarding sexual harassment, my work environment has become hostile, painful, and unbearable.”

She moved on to other jobs in the financial-services industry. After a stint selling health insurance to immigrants at Metropolitan Hospital in Queens, the hospital cited her in November 2003 for “providing world-class customer service” and for being the number one enroller in the office. In August 2006, the district managers at Bank of America gave her a Customer Higher Standards Award on diploma paper, on which they wrote: “Debrahlee: You deserve to be recognized for going above and beyond.”

She says she loved to work, and eventually was earning close to $70,000 a year. “My ex-boyfriend says it’s my Spic pride,” she says. “As long as I have two hands and two legs, and can still walk, I will always work, so my son will have a roof over his head and food.”

And she will be well-dressed. Lorenzana is, by her own admission, a shopaholic. She shops for her work clothes at Zara, but when she has money, she says, she spends it on designer clothes. She has five closets full of Burberry, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, and Roberto Cavalli. In her son’s closet, there’s a row of tiny Lacoste, Dolce & Gabbana, and Ralph Lauren T-shirts. She says her love of fine clothes is a result of her growing up poor—she recalls running a high school marathon barefoot because she couldn’t afford sneakers.

Lorenzana left the workplace to get married, but that relationship went sour after a brief time, and in September 2008, she was ready to go back to work. It was the height of the Wall Street crisis, but she lucked out. She got an interview with Citibank for a job at its recently opened branch in the Chrysler Building.

At the interview, she recalls, she wore a black Armani wrap dress and simple Christian Louboutin pumps. (The dress was form-fitting and tight in the bust: She says one size up would have been too big for her.) She remembers that the branch manager, Craig Fisher, was polite, asking her about strategies for acquiring new business and whether she had other job offers. Since she already had an offer from Washington Mutual, Fisher proposed a salary of $70,000 with three weeks’ vacation, she says. Her job title was business banker, providing services to small businesses. There were three business bankers at the Chrysler Building branch; Lorenzana was the only woman.

When she started the job, she says, a colleague told her that the branch was “pretty much known for hiring pretty girls,” and that she knew Lorenzana was going to be hired from the moment she came in for her interview. “So here I am,” Lorenzana recalls, “thinking I got hired because of my capabilities, and now you’re telling me it’s because of my physical appearance? Oh, great.”

However, she liked the job, the pay, and the prospects for advancement. For the first two months, she says, she was hardly in the office—she was either out drumming up business or attending training sessions. But once she started spending more time in the office, things began to go downhill. Interviews and her lawsuit, which was filed in November 2009, tell her story: Fisher and another manager, Peter Claibourne, started making offhanded comments about her appearance, she says. She was told not to wear fitted business suits. She should wear makeup because she looked sickly without it. (She had purposefully stopped wearing makeup in hopes of attracting less attention.) Once, she recalls, she came in to work without having blow-dried her hair straight—it is naturally curly—and Fisher told a female colleague to pass on a message that she shouldn’t come into work without straightening it.

Other problems also popped up. In order to provide services to a client, a banker needs to become certified to do things like open a checking account or take a loan application. Lorenzana says Fisher didn’t send her to enough of the required training sessions, which meant she wasn’t authorized to do something as simple as order a debit card for a client and was forced to rely on her colleagues for favors. “When I complained,” Lorenzana says, “Craig would say, ‘Just go ahead and bring in new business.’ So I went out every day and looked for business.” But then, she says, when clients would come into the branch asking for her—or would fax papers to the branch with her name on them—Fisher would give those hard-won accounts to male colleagues. In late 2008, she recalls, the two managers called her into Fisher’s office. She remembers that she was wearing a red camisole, beige pants, and a navy suit jacket. This is how she tells it: “They said, ‘Deb, we need to talk to you about your work attire. . . . Your pants are too tight.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, my pants are not too tight! If you want to talk about inappropriate clothes, go downstairs and look at some of the tellers!’ “

Citibank does have a dress-code policy, which says clothing must not be provocative, but does not go into specifics, and managers have wide discretion. But Lorenzana points out that, unlike her, some of the tellers dressed in miniskirts and low-cut blouses. “And when they bend down,” Lorenzana says, “anyone can see what God gave them!”

Then the managers gave her a list of clothing items she would not be allowed to wear: turtlenecks, pencil skirts, and fitted suits. And three-inch heels. “As a result of her tall stature, coupled with her curvaceous figure,” her suit says, Lorenzana was told “she should not wear classic high-heeled business shoes, as this purportedly drew attention to her body in a manner that was upsetting to her easily distracted male managers.” “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” Lorenzana recalls. “I said, ‘You gotta be kidding me!’ I was like, ‘Too distracting? For who? For you? My clients don’t seem to have any problem.’ “

The managers instructed her to wear looser clothing. Lorenzana refused. “I don’t have the money to buy a new wardrobe,” she says, referring to her work outfits. “I shop where everyone else shops—at Zara!” Lorenzana recalls leaving the meeting feeling humiliated. Other female employees “were able to wear such clothing because they were short, overweight, and they didn’t draw much attention,” she later wrote in a letter describing the meeting to Human Resources, “but since I was five-foot-six, 125 pounds, with a figure, it wasn’t ‘appropriate.’ ” She was also furious. “Are you saying that just because I look this way genetically, that this should be a curse for me?”

That same afternoon, she says, she called Human Resources. “I felt it was inappropriate for two male managers to pull me aside like that,” she says. “I felt they were attacking me. In most places, if you are going to address a woman about anything that has to do with her personal appearance, you want to address it with a female employee there.”

In the weeks that followed, Lorenzana says she called HR up to three or four times a day. An e-mail, she says, finally brought action: A human resources manager named Morgan Putman came to the branch in January and interviewed employees. Lorenzana says she had taken two pictures of female colleagues to show HR officials. One was of a woman wearing a grayish—and very short—silk dress. The other was of a woman wearing leather boots with three-inch spike heels. “Some tellers would wear their pants so tight, it was like they had a permanent wedgie,” says Lorenzana. “It was totally inappropriate.”

After the HR visit, she says, things got markedly worse. Lorenzana says her bosses made incessant comments about her clothes. She tried to dress down in ways that didn’t involve clothes—pulling her hair back, coming to work some days without makeup, but it didn’t make a difference. “I could have worn a paper bag, and it would not have mattered,” she says. “If it wasn’t my shirt, it was my pants. If it wasn’t my pants, it was my shoes. They picked on me every single day.” Still, she continued to dress up for work—her brand of femininity is also cultural. “Where I’m from,” she says, switching into Spanish to explain it, “women dress up—like put on makeup and do their nails—to go to the supermarket. And I’m not talking trashy, you know, like in the Heights. I was raised very Latin, you know? We’re feminine. A woman in Puerto Rico takes care of herself. The Puerto Rican women here put down our flag.”

According to court documents and her letters to HR, Lorenzana continued to ask for more training sessions, but didn’t get them. Meanwhile, clients whose business she had drummed up were being handed off to her colleagues. An April 2009 quarterly report showed that she was behind the other business bankers in monthly sales credits. On June 24, she received a letter saying that she was being put on final notice, that she was bringing in too little business. But there was something strange about the letter, which was signed by Craig Fisher, and which put her on probation for six months. The letter said she had come in late on June 6 and 7. This struck her as odd. She looked at the dates. They were a Saturday and a Sunday—the branch was closed on those days. In addition to raising the issue of her bosses’ unfairly giving her business to colleagues, she pointed out those incorrect dates to Human Resources.

One day in late spring 2009, Lorenzana says, Craig Fisher told her to move some files into storage in the basement from the second floor. The previous day, she recalled, a male colleague had been given the same instructions, and because there were a lot of heavy files, he came into work in flip-flops and jeans. So she brought in flip-flops. But Fisher told her that she had to take off the flip-flops and wear high heels while moving the heavy, paper-filled boxes, her suit alleges.

The high-heels incident infuriated her, she says. She was getting worn down. On June 25, at 3:30 p.m., she sent a long-winded e-mail to two regional vice presidents whom she had never met, bypassing Morgan Putman at Human Resources. It was the kind of e-mail that could have used a proofreader, one a lawyer might advise a client not to send without some serious editing. (English is not her first language.) But she summed up her experiences with Fisher and Claibourne well and talked about “the cruelty of a hostile work environment,” where she was harassed “on a daily basis.” She ended by writing that “Mr. Fisher stated he is good friends with lots of people in the organization giving me . . . reason to believe that nothing will happen to correct the situation going on at branch 357. I have requested for the second time a transfer. . . . I came to Citibank with high expectations. Please I just want to work in a fair work environment where everyone is equal. Thank you in advance for your attention in this matter.”

The VPs never responded in writing, but she sent follow-up e-mails in which she continued to report incidents at work. Less than a month after her June 25 e-mail, she was transferred to a Citibank branch at Rockefeller Center. The way she looked or dressed didn’t draw any comments there, she says, but that branch didn’t need another business banker. In mid-July, she e-mailed Morgan Putman, thanking her for the transfer, but pointing out that she was working as a telemarketer, which wasn’t her job title.

In August, her manager at the Rockefeller Center branch—a woman—sat her down and fired her. The female manager mentioned the problems related to her clothing at the previous branch. She did not mention work performance, Lorenzana says. The manager said she was sorry, but Lorenzana wasn’t fit for the culture of Citibank.

“It’s so tiring,” Lorenzana tells the Voice. “My entire life, I’ve been dealing with this. ‘Cause people say, ‘Oh, you got a job because you look that way.’ So you gotta work four times harder to prove you are capable. To prove you didn’t get this because of the way you look. First, I’m a woman, then I’m an immigrant, and I have my accent. At Citibank, when they were picking on me for every little thing, I couldn’t take it anymore!” After she was fired, she became depressed and began panicking about how she would afford her car payments and rent, and she applied for unemployment. Last Christmas, she and her son skipped gift-giving.

Meanwhile, she continues to receive unwanted attention. She says she gets hit on constantly and walks on the street as if she were wearing body armor: forward and straight, avoiding everyone’s gaze. “If being less good-looking,” she says, “means being happy and finding love and not being sexually harassed and having a job where no one bothers you and no one questions you because of your looks, then, definitely, I’d want that. I think of that every day.”

In preparation for the lawsuit, lawyer Jack Tuckner had a professional photographer shoot her in various work outfits in his office near Wall Street. There’s nothing wrong with the clothes—they’re proper business attire. And there’s nothing wrong with Lorenzana, who looks really, really good in them. Obviously, that shouldn’t have anything to do with how she’s judged in the workplace. But things may not be so clear when the case goes into arbitration. The practice of making employees, as a condition of employment, opt out of their right to sue the company is a common corporate strategy. Under the city’s Human Rights Law, she has to prove that “it’s more likely than not” that Citibank created a discriminatory and hostile work environment based on gender. She must demonstrate that she was treated differently based on her sartorial choices as a female and that she was fired in close proximity to her complaints of being treated differently. Citibank also has a burden of proof: that it specifically did not create a hostile work environment based on her sex and that it fired her for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons.

Lorenzana can rely on her testimony, her letters to HR, and the testimony of witnesses. Citibank can point to its disciplinary action—the final notice letter—but the letter punishes her for being late on days the bank wasn’t even open. (That’s the only disciplinary paper trail the Voice is aware of in this case.) Lorenzana could prevail on either or both of these issues: a hostile work environment or retaliation. Tuckner says that in his experience with gender-discrimination cases, juries tend to be more sympathetic than arbitrators, if only because the typical arbitrator is a middle-aged man. There’s always the possibility that he’ll be too distracted by Lorenzana to focus on the evidence.