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In Dueling Lawsuits, Ross Bleckner and Former Assistant Trade Accusations of Extortion, Sexual Misconduct

The Theodore Roosevelt Federal Courthouse, the headquarters for the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York, in Brooklyn.

VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Artist Ross Bleckner and Cody Gilman, who claims to have worked as an assistant for Bleckner, filed competing lawsuits against each other on Thursday, November 15, presenting starkly different narratives of their relationship to each other.

Bleckner claims the relationship was personal and consensual in nature, and alleges that Gilman attempted to extort him by making false claims of sexual harassment. Gilman, for his part, contends that the relationship was professional and that he was subject to inappropriate sexual behavior by the artist and had been attempting to reach an out-of-court settlement.

Bleckner filed his complaint in Manhattan Supreme Court ahead of Gilman, who shortly thereafter filed his in United States District Court. Bleckner is seeking unspecified damages related to allegations in his suit and punitive damages; Gilman is seeking a trial by jury as well as remuneration for lost wages and damages related to “mental, emotional and physical injury, distress, pain and suffering and injury to his reputation.”

Bleckner and Gilman engaged in sexual acts in recent years, both suits maintain, but Bleckner’s terms describe “consensual sexual activity” while Gilman’s allege that he was the victim of a “campaign of sexual harassment and sexual assault.”

The two met through an online dating site and struck up a relationship. Gilman’s suit times their meeting to 2013, with continued “social interactions over the course of four years,” while Bleckner’s suit contends they met in 2015 and that the two “engaged in consensual sex on several occasions” that year. Gilman claims that during their interactions he was offered a job working as a “Personal Assistant/Studio,” but he declined.

Gilman says that, in 2017, after a period apart, he reached out to Bleckner to revisit the offer and, after the artist extended it again, he took the job. Bleckner contends that Gilman said he would soon be between jobs, and that they discussed his moving to New York. Gilman says he moved, in February of this year, into Bleckner’s home in the Hamptons—a house once owned by Truman Capote—as a requirement of an assistant job whose duties included “grocery shopping, art supply shopping, conducting yard work, assisting Defendant in his art studio, cooking meals, cleaning the kitchen, and providing massages,” according to his complaint. For this work, Bleckner paid Gilman $750 a week.

Shortly after his arrival, Bleckner’s suit contends, the two resumed their prior intimate relationship, with Gilman cast as the one who “initiated and engaged in sexual intercourse.” Gilman’s complaint, however, alleges that the artist subjected him to sexual contact without his consent. Over the course of two months, Gilman says that Bleckner entered his room uninvited; forcibly kissed, masturbated, and performed oral sex on him; and engaged in other actions without permission, among other allegations.

Throughout this period, Gilman says he insisted he “wanted their relationship to be strictly professional” and “emphasized that he would never consent” to Bleckner’s sexual advances—and that he feared losing his job. In response, Gilman claims, Bleckner said he would rather end the arrangement.

During the course of their interactions, which ended when Gilman quit and left the Hamptons in March, Gilman made recordings of their physical engagements, his suit states, as a way “to stop [Bleckner’s] unlawful conduct.” Bleckner’s suit acknowledges the recordings and claims they were made without his knowledge.

Bleckner’s complaint contends that the artist received a letter and a draft of a complaint in May from an attorney retained by Gilman alleging that Bleckner had “sexually harassed, coerced, and assaulted” the defendant and that the duo’s sexual activity was “the result of physical force and coercion.” In this context, Bleckner’s complaint describes the plaintiff as “a five and a half foot tall 69 year-old artist” and the defendant as “a more than six foot tall twenty-five year-old construction worker.”

Following the letter, Bleckner’s claim alleges, Gilman’s attorney phoned and “indicated that if [Bleckner] did not pay [Gilman] in excess of $2 million Defendant would publicly accuse Plaintiff of sexual harassment, coercion, and assault.” Gilman’s complaint contends that the $2 million was to be part of a proposed “settlement.”

In his complaint filed yesterday, Gilman called Bleckner’s “a frivolous lawsuit” that “seeks to skirt any accountability.” He said the “retaliatory lawsuit is nothing more than [Bleckner] weaponizing victimhood” to “intimidate” Gilman, and that it has caused him to suffer “severe emotional distress and physical ailments.”

The suit filed by Bleckner, who has denied the allegations against him, asks that the artist be cleared of liability regarding Gilman’s claims as well as an undetermined sum for “extreme emotional distress” and the prospect that such charges could “risk damage to [his] reputation which would affect Plaintiff’s status and earnings as a world-renowned artist.”

A representative for Bleckner said the artist has been advised not to comment. Attempts to reach Gilman have thus far been unsuccessful.

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