COACH's Pop Quiz!
Q: A tenant comes to you in tears and says that a maintenance worker who’s been sexually harassing her for months just entered her apartment and exposed himself. “I’m going to call a lawyer,” she exclaims. You feel terrible for the tenant and want to do everything you can to help her. But you also don’t want her to make a scene or drag the lawyers in. So, you tell her not to tell anybody about the incident and assure her that you’ll call the police and speak directly to the worker’s employer. Did you break the law?
a. No, because you acted in the tenant’s best interests
b. Yes, because you interfered with the tenant’s right to file a fair housing complaint
c. No, because it’s far from clear whether the tenant would have a valid fair housing case against you
A: The correct answer is b., because you interfered with the tenant’s right to file a fair housing complaint. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) bans not just retaliating against a tenant who makes a complaint, but acts to coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with the exercise of a fair housing right. And that’s just what you did when you told the tenant not to tell anybody about the incident. While it might have been well intentioned, the instruction to keep silent interferes with the tenant’s right to file an FHA sexual harassment complaint. So, b. is the right answer.
Wrong answers explained:
a. It’s debatable whether you were really acting in the tenant’s best interest in telling her not to say anything about just having been sexually assaulted. More significantly, a. is wrong because trying to stop a tenant from filing a fair housing complaint is illegal regardless of the motive for doing so.
c. This choice is wrong because the legal validity of the underlying fair housing complaint is in no way relevant to the ban on interfering with a tenant’s right to file it. It’s the mere action of interference that determines liability.
In the context of fair housing, retaliation means an unfavorable action a landlord takes, like rejecting a rental applicant or evicting a tenant because he complains about discrimination or exercises any of his other rights under discrimination laws. Risk of liability comes into play any time you reject, evict, raise the rent, or make housing decisions that negatively affect a person who’s previously exercised a fair housing right. This is true even if retaliation was the furthest thing from your mind. Moreover, while prohibition against retaliation has always been a fundamental part of fair housing laws, retaliation claims against landlords have increased noticeably in recent years.
To find out more about how retaliation happens and what can you do to avoid it, see our October lesson, “Fair Housing Retaliation Liability Risks & How to Avoid Them,” available to subscribers here.