COACH's Pop Quiz!
How Should You Respond to Tenant-on-Tenant Harassment?
Q: A tenant on the third floor tells you that one of your white tenants (Ms. W) has been steadily barraging her Black neighbor (Ms. B) with racial slurs over the course of several years. Although you’ve always suspected that Ms. W was a bit of a racist, you’re utterly shocked that Ms. B has never once complained—and neither have any of your other Black tenants. What you should do?
a. Immediately move Ms. B to a different floor to get her away from Ms. W.
b. Ignore the report and wait for Ms. B to come forward.
c. Investigate and discipline Ms. W if the report turns out to be true.
d. Evict Ms. W immediately.
A: The correct answer is c., investigate and discipline Ms. W if the report turns out to be true. Under current law, namely, the Wetzel standard, the landlord’s duty is to take steps to address harassment that it actually knows about. And thanks to the witness’ report, you do know that Ms. W may be harassing Ms. B, so you must take steps to deal with it.
Normally, the first course of action would be to try to mediate a resolution between the sides. But mediation probably isn’t appropriate for a situation involving racial slurs and other forms of blatantly racist conduct. As a result, you should have a qualified person investigate the matter, including by interviewing Ms. B, Ms. W, and the witness. And if the investigator reports that the charges are true, you need to do something to make Ms. W stop her harassment and refrain from doing it ever again, which may include discipline up to the point of eviction. Thus, c. is the right answer.
Wrong answers explained:
a. The reason a. is wrong is that relocating Ms. B is tantamount to punishing the victim and a form of discrimination to the extent it takes away Ms. B’s right to choose where she wants to live. This is true even if you think you’re acting in Ms. B’s best interests by trying to protect her from Ms. W.
b. Choice b. is wrong because the witness’ report has put you on notice of harassment and once you know about it, you must address it. This is certainly true if your property is in Illinois, Indiana, or Wisconsin—that is, the Seventh Circuit, where the Wetzel case is binding law; and it may also be true in every other state with three exceptions: New York, Connecticut, and Vermont—the Second Circuit, where the Francis ruling rejecting a landlord duty to address tenant-on-tenant harassment applies.
d. This choice is wrong because the fair housing duty to stop tenants from harassing other tenants may include but doesn’t automatically require eviction. It’s up to the landlord to decide on the appropriate discipline based on the circumstances involved. And that’s also why you need to investigate before you make that decision.
For a more detailed discussion of the Wetzel and Francis cases—and for a Model Anti-Harassment Policy that you can adapt for use at your community—see our May lesson, How to Limit Liability for Tenant-on-Tenant Harassment, available to subscribers here.