A federal appellate court has found that a landlord could be liable for discrimination by failing to protect a tenant who was being harassed by another tenant.
The case arose after an African-American man rented a New York apartment. The first several months of the tenancy were uneventful. Then, a neighboring tenant began to harass the man by yelling racially-charged epithets, threatening to kill him, and photographing his unit, actions that the appellate court describes as a “brazen and relentless campaign of racial harassment, abuse, and threats.”
The victim contacted the police at least three times. Each time the tenant was forced to call the police, he detailed the event in writing and submitted the information to the property manager. No action was taken.
Because the situation was never resolved and the offending tenant remained at the property, the victim failed to renew his lease and moved out. Ultimately, the offending tenant pleaded guilty to harassment and the victim was awarded a restraining order.
The victim filed a lawsuit, which was dismissed by a lower court after that judge determined that there is no source of liability for the landlord in the situation. However, the appellate court disagreed and revived the lawsuit.
The appellate justices determined that a landlord may be liable under the Fair Housing Act for failing to take prompt action to address a problem — creating a racially hostile housing environment — where the landlord knew about the harassment and had the power to fix it.
The justices found that not only did the landlord fail to investigate or attempt to resolve the tenant’s complaint of racial discrimination, but by allowing the offending tenant to continue to live at the property without consequence, the landlord may have intentionally discriminated against the victim.
In reaching the decision, the appellate court referred to HUD’s guidance on neighbor complaints and concluded that a landlord may be liable under the Fair Housing Act if the victim can show:
A third-party created a hostile environment;
The landlord knew or should have known about the conduct; and
The landlord failed to take prompt corrective action while having the power to do so.
According to the Fair Housing Act, the harassment must be sufficiently severe or pervasive as to interfere with the victim’s use or enjoyment of the property. The justices concluded that this liability exists for discriminatory events occurring throughout the tenancy.
The case was sent back to a trial court to make a determination whether the evidence supports the tenant’s claims.
In addition to the discrimination claims, a tenant in a similar situation may be able to sue a landlord for breach of the implied covenants of habitability and quiet enjoyment in the lease agreement.
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Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is not intended to be construed as legal advice, nor should it be considered a substitute for obtaining individual legal counsel or consulting your local, state, federal or provincial tenancy laws.