Notice to Career Sexually Predatory Landlords - It’s Legal to Sexually Harass Your Tenants “If You Only Do it Once”
Imagine an [18 year old] single woman of limited means living with her two children in an apartment complex. The resident manager would like to go out with her or, to put it less euphemistically, would like to have a sexual relationship with her. Initially, he approaches the matter subtly by complimenting the woman on her appearance and offering to do special maintenance favors for her. Eventually, he asks her out. When she refuses, he becomes verbally hostile, calling her a "tease" and a "bitch." Thereafter, he threatens to evict her unless she has sex with him. The threat is not carried out, but the manager is now unpleasant in his exchanges with the tenant. She tries to avoid seeing him around the apartment complex, but when he comes to her unit to collect the rent, he often makes crude or sexually suggestive remarks such as "you could make this pay day so much nicer for both of us." Do the nation's fair housing laws prohibit any or all of what the manager has done in this situation?
To date, the courts have generally answered "no."
- Robert G. Schwemm & Rigel C. Oliveri, Article: A New Look at Sexual Harassment under the Fair Housing Act
An incredibly underappreciated problem that women face across the country is sexual harassment by their landlords.
Women are technically protected by the Fair Housing Act of 1968 from the creation of a "hostile environment" that functions to alter the terms and conditions of their housing.
The current problem is that if a landlord merely sexually harasses a tenant without taking any retaliatory action against them for their refusal of his advances, the standard for a violation is incredibly high. In contrast, claims of retaliation for refusals of advances are much easier to win, but this type of claim requires evidence of a concrete retaliatory action. Ironically, for the "career sexual harasser" - who would probably like to keep the targets of their harassment on their property - they may not mind this arrangement since they may never intend to evict the tenant.
Unfortunately, it appears that landlord is safe if he molests his tenant, as long as he does not do it too often. Arguably, based on the case law, if a landlord molests a female tenant in her first week of occupancy and then leaves her alone for the rest of her lease, he will likely avoid liability.The standard is so low, that he could arguably molest his tenant once every year, because it might not be considered "frequent" enough.
In the words of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals "[t]hough sporadic behavior, if sufficiently abusive, may support a [discrimination] claim, success often requires repetitive misconduct." - Chalmers v. Quaker Oats Co., 61 F.3d 1340, 1345 (7th Cir. 1995).
And yet, the level of "abuse" the courts tolerate seems immense. A look at a few sample cases makes the point more clearly.
For example, in one case:
"[The landlord on] one occasion put his hand on the plaintiff's leg and kissed her until she pushed him away. Three weeks later, the defendant lurched at the plaintiff from behind some bushes and unsuccessfully tried to grab her.â Saxton v. American Tel. & Tel. Co, 10 F.3d 526 (7th Cir. 1993)
The court found that this conduct did not qualify as a violation of federal fair housing law.
"[The landlord asked] the plaintiff for dates on repeated occasions, placed signs which read "I love you" in her work area, and twice attempted to kiss her. - Weiss v. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Chicago, 990 F.2d 333 (7th Cir. 1993)
Here again, a landlord's behavior is not considered a violation of federal fair housing law.:
In yet another still:
"The plaintiffs were a married couple who were evicted from their apartment allegedly because Mrs. Shellhammer refused her landlord's requests to pose for nude photographs and to have sex with him." - A New Look at Sexual Harassment
Had the landlord allowed the couple to continue living in his rental complex, this too would not have been a violation of federal fair housing law.
In a final example:
"A single mother who was in the process of moving her mobile home into the defendant's trailer park when he asked her out socially on three different occasions. After she had moved in and made clear to him that she did not want to go out with him, a series of disputes arose between them, which resulted in his threatening to evict her and her ultimate decision to move out." - A New Look at Sexual Harassment
This landlord's behavior, according to the court, is not in violation of federal fair housing law.
Ironically, this blog post could be seen as free legal advice for "career sexual harassing landlords." Indeed, the title satirically alludes to this fact. However, my hope is that instead this post draws attention to this issue such that it will eventually translate into the passage of stronger fair housing laws.
Although federal legislation can be passed to address this harassment loophole, another effective approach is the passage of state and local fair housing law. Both states and cities can and do have their own fair housing law, which may be more comprehensive than federal law under the fair housing act.
For example, New York City explicitly protects people from discrimination based on sexual orientation, while the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 does not.
Be aware that your state or local government may have passed more stringent laws, and if they have not, please support efforts to do so. It's important that tenants know and exercise their rights.
As a last point, in the case upon which the introductory hypothetical was based, the court states:
"The problem with Brown's complaint is that although DiCenso may have harassed her, he did so only once - DiCenso's comments vaguely invited Brown to exchange sex for rent, and while Dicenso caressed Brown's arm and back, he did not touch an intimate body part, and he did not threaten Brown with any physical harm.
This alone did not create an objectively hostile environment."
One would think that in 2006 we had come further than permitting this type of behavior
- even "just once."
If you have been a victim of housing or employment discrimination please contact:
*This post is obviously focused on female tenants and male landlords. Obviously, female landlords may also harass male tenants. In addition, if people are interested in the same-sex jurisprudence, I can do the research and let you know.
If you or your organization is interested in learning more about or working on these types of civil justice issues, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Senior Fellow in Civil Justice
Drum Major Institute for Public Policy