Hot Topics in Fair Housing Law
This month, the Coach takes a close look at three hot button fair housing issues that have been generating a lot of activity in the courts and federal enforcement agencies.
First up: Sexual harassment. Accusations against high-profile celebrities, politicians, and media moguls, fueled by the #MeToo movement, have raised awareness and pushed the issue into the national consciousness. Likewise, it’s become a top priority for officials in the Justice Department and HUD, which continue to come down hard on those accused of sexual harassment against prospects, applicants, and residents. Meanwhile, the victims of sexual harassment in rental housing continue to turn to the courts, either on their own or with the help of fair housing advocates, to seek redress for their injuries.
Next up: Tenant-on-tenant harassment. Federal fair housing law bans not only sexual harassment, but also harassment based on race, national origin, or other protected characteristics. Most cases against community owners are based on the actions of managers or employees, but HUD regulations—and a recent court ruling—make it clear that communities face potential liability under fair housing law for tenant-on-tenant harassment under certain circumstances.
Last up: Criminal background checks. A few years ago, HUD released guidelines on how fair housing law applies to the use of criminal records by both conventional and assisted housing providers, and federal officials and fair housing advocates continue to press communities accused of discrimination based on criminal screening policies.
In this lesson, we’ll take each of these topics in turn, reviewing recent developments involving HUD, the Justice Department, and the courts, so you’ll understand how to handle these situations should they arise at your community. Finally, you can take the Coach’s Quiz to see how much you’ve learned.
The federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, and familial status.
Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination banned under the FHA. The basic rules haven’t changed much, but it’s becoming increasingly urgent to take all steps necessary to prevent sexual harassment at your community.
Federal officials with HUD and the Justice Department have made it a top priority to crack down on sexual harassment in housing. In 2017, the Justice Department launched an initiative to combat sexual harassment in housing, and last year, it announced the nationwide rollout of the initiative, including three major components: a new joint Task Force with HUD to combat sexual harassment in housing, an outreach toolkit to leverage the Department’s nationwide network of U.S. Attorney’s Offices, and a public awareness campaign, including the launch of a national Public Service Announcement.
Earlier this year, HUD launched a campaign and training initiative to help protect people from harassment by landlords, property managers, and maintenance workers in HUD-assisted housing. The “Call HUD: Because Sexual Harassment in Housing is Illegal” campaign aims to educate the public about what behaviors constitute sexual harassment and what to do and whom to contact if they experience it where they live. The initiative also offers sexual harassment training to employees of public housing authorities and other housing providers.
“Complaints we receive and cases we see tell us that there are some housing providers who unfortunately prey on vulnerable men and women,” Anna María Farías, HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, said in a statement. “No one should have to tolerate harassment or unwanted sexual advances in order to keep a roof over their head, and HUD will continue to take appropriate action when discrimination of this type occurs.”
Since launching the initiative, the Justice Department has filed nine lawsuits alleging a pattern or practice of sexual harassment in housing. The Department has filed or settled 14 sexual harassment cases since January 2017 and has recovered over $2.2 million for victims of sexual harassment in housing.
Example: In April 2019, the Justice Department announced a $600,000 settlement with a North Carolina property owner for allegedly subjecting 17 female prospects and residents to sexual harassment over the course of more than 10 years in violation of the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.
According to the complaint, the owner ran a real estate business that involved not only operating residential rental properties, but also selling homes through “owner financing,” meaning that he extended credit to individuals to purchase homes that he owned. The complaint alleged that he subjected female prospects and residents of these homes to sexual harassment by making unwanted sexual advances and comments; groping or otherwise touching their bodies without consent; offering to reduce or eliminate down payments, rent, and loan obligations in exchange for sexual favors; and taking or threatening to take adverse action against residents when they refused or objected to his advances.
Under the settlement, the owner agreed to pay $550,000 in damages to former and prospective residents, as well as a $50,000 civil penalty. The settlement also permanently bars him from participating in the rental, sale, or financing of residential properties, and requires that he relinquish his ownership interest in all such properties.
“Abusing power and control over housing and credit by committing acts of sexual harassment is an abhorrent and intolerable violation of every woman’s right to equal housing and credit opportunities,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said in a statement. “The Justice Department, through its Sexual Harassment in Housing Initiative, will continue to aggressively enforce federal anti-discrimination laws against property managers and owners who cause women to feel unsafe in their homes.”
Example: In April 2019, the Justice Department announced that it has added more alleged victims in a sexual harassment case against the owner and manager of rental properties in Tennessee. The lawsuit alleged that the landlord, who owned and managed a mobile home park and other rental properties, sexually harassed a number of female residents at his properties. Among other things, the landlord was accused of conditioning housing or housing benefits on female residents’ agreement to engage in sexual acts; subjecting at least one female resident to unwanted sexual touching; making unwelcome sexual comments and advances to female residents; and taking adverse housing-related actions against female residents when they refused his sexual advances. The complaint contains allegations of unlawful conduct; the allegations must be proven in federal court.
“No woman should ever be subjected to sexual harassment or intimidation in her home,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said in a statement. “The Fair Housing Act protects tenants from harassment and retaliation by their landlords, and the Justice Department will continue to vigorously enforce this law and seek relief for victims.”
“Property owners and landlords who use their position to harass residents or to attempt to trade sexual favors for rent violate the sanctity of an individual’s home, the place where they should feel the safest,” said Anna María Farías, HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. “HUD will continue to work with the Justice Department to take action against housing providers that violate the Fair Housing Act by engaging in this type of behavior.”
Example: In March 2019, the owners and former manager of more than 70 rental properties in West Virginia were held in civil contempt for failing to pay $600,000 still owing under a 2017 settlement with the Justice Department in a sexual harassment case.
The initial complaint alleged that a married couple and related entities owned the properties and that the husband, while serving as the manager, subjected female prospects and residents to egregious sexual harassment and retaliation in violation of fair housing law. In 2015, the husband pleaded guilty to sexual abuse and other charges and was incarcerated for two years for those offenses. The wife has since died.
According to the complaint, the husband sexually harassed multiple female prospects and residents from at least 2006 until he was incarcerated. Among other things, the husband was accused of engaging in unwanted sexual touching and groping; conditioning or offering tangible housing benefits in exchange for performance of sex acts; touching himself in a sexual manner and exposing himself in the presence of female residents; making unwanted and unwelcome sexual comments and verbal sexual advances; entering the apartments of female residents without permission or notice to sexually harass them; and taking or threatening to take adverse action against female residents who refused or objected to his sexual advances.
The wife was accused of failing to take appropriate steps to remedy the discrimination after receiving tenant complaints about sexual harassment. To the contrary, she allegedly took adverse housing actions, or threatened to take such actions, in retaliation for discrimination complaints.
To resolve the case, the defendants agreed to a settlement, which required them to deposit $500,000 into a compensation fund for potential victims and pay $100,000 in civil penalties to the government. The defendants made the first $100,000 payment but failed to deposit the remaining $400,000 into the compensation fund or pay the $100,000 civil penalty as agreed a year later.
The Justice Department took the case back to court, where the judge granted its request to hold the defendants in civil contempt for failing to pay the balance of the funds owed under the 2017 settlement agreement.
The defendants didn’t deny that they owed the money and failed to submit financial documents to prove their supposed inability to pay. They conceded that they owned more than $700,000 worth of property but said that they couldn’t obtain a loan secured by the properties. They didn’t want to sell the properties because the husband wanted to transfer his interest in the properties to his children and a forced sale of the properties at below market value “would only punish innocent persons not party” to the settlement agreement.
Rejecting those claims, the court said that obtaining fair market value for the sale of their real estate wasn’t required for the defendants to satisfy their obligations under the settlement agreement. The “innocent persons” at issue in this case were the defendants’ former female residents and prospects who have yet to be compensated for the harms they suffered as a result of the husband’s conduct [U.S. v. Walden, March 2019].
Coach’s Tip: Adopt a zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment at your community. It’s important to have a clear, written policy that sexual harassment of any kind won’t be tolerated at your community and that violations will bring prompt disciplinary action, up to and including termination. Require all employees—from leasing agents to maintenance workers, whether full or part time—to receive fair housing training, including your sexual harassment policy.
Understanding Harassment Regulations
In September 2016, HUD adopted final regulations on fair housing protections for victims of harassment based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, familial status, or disability. The new regulations cover “quid pro quo” harassment and hostile environment harassment in both private and publicly assisted housing.
Sexual harassment in housing threatens a resident’s safety and privacy in her own home, according to HUD. In its experience enforcing the FHA, HUD said that low-income women—often racial and ethnic minorities and persons with disabilities—may be particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment in housing. HUD’s final rule on harassment in housing includes formal uniform standards for evaluating claims of hostile environment and quid pro quo harassment in the housing context:
Quid pro quo (“this for that”) harassment involves subjecting a person to an unwelcome request or demand and making submission to the request or demand a condition related to the person’s housing.
Hostile environment harassment involves subjecting a person to unwelcome conduct that’s so severe or pervasive that it interferes with or deprives the person of the right to use and enjoy the housing.
The new rules also clarify when housing providers and other covered entities or individuals may be held directly or vicariously liable under the Fair Housing Act for illegal harassment or other discriminatory housing practices.
HUD’s regulations make it clear that fair housing law bans not only sexual harassment, but also harassment based on any protected class, including race, national origin, disability, and family status.
The regulations also clarify when housing providers and other covered entities and individuals may be held liable for illegal harassment and other discriminatory housing practices. Under HUD regulations, community owners may be liable under fair housing law for failing to take prompt action to correct and end discriminatory conduct, including harassment, by their employees or agents, where they knew or should have known about it.
You don’t have only your employees or other staff members to worry about—you could face liability for tenant-on-tenant harassment under certain circumstances. Based on the HUD regulations, you could be liable under fair housing law for failing to take prompt action to correct and end a discriminatory housing practice by a third party, where you knew or should have known of the discriminatory conduct and had the power to correct it. The power to take prompt action to correct and end a discriminatory housing practice by a third party depends on the extent of your control or any other legal responsibility you may have with respect to the third party’s conduct.
Example: In March 2019, a court ruled that a New York community could be liable under the FHA for an alleged campaign of racial harassment against an African-American resident by his neighbor.
After living at the community for several months, the resident claimed that his next-door neighbor began a relentless campaign of racial harassment, abuse, and threats directed toward him. From the start of the harassment, the resident said he feared for his personal safety, so he contacted the police and the site’s management to complain.
According to the resident, his first call in March 2012 prompted police officers in the hate crimes unit to visit the site, interview witnesses, and warn the neighbor to stop threatening the resident with racial epithets. That day the resident said he filed a police report, and a police officer told the management about the neighbor’s conduct. Allegedly, the management did nothing.
In May 2012, the resident said he called the police again and filed another police report. This time, the resident said he provided written notice to management about his neighbor’s racial harassment and racial slurs directed toward him between March and May 2012. It also provided contact information for the police officers responsible for investigating the neighbor. Allegedly, the management still took no action.
According to the complaint, the neighbor’s conduct persisted to the point that the police arrested him for aggravated harassment. In August 2012, the resident said he sent a second letter informing management of the continued racial slurs directed to him and the fact that the neighbor had recently been arrested for harassment.
In September, the resident said he contacted the police and sent the management group a third letter complaining about his neighbor’s continued harassment. After receiving the letter, according to the complaint, the management group advised the site manager “not to get involved,” and the management group declined to respond or follow up. To the contrary, the resident claimed that the neighbor was allowed to stay in his unit until his lease expired and he moved out in January 2013. A few months later, the neighbor pleaded guilty to harassment and a court entered an order of protection prohibiting him from contacting the resident.
The resident sued, accusing the owner and manager of violating fair housing law by failing to take action to address a racially hostile housing environment created by his neighbor. A district court ruled against the resident and dismissed the case.
On appeal, the court reversed, ruling that the resident could pursue his claims against the community for failing to do anything to stop the neighbor from subjecting him to a racially hostile housing environment.
The court cited HUD’s regulations, which specifically state that an owner may be liable under the FHA for “[f]ailing to take prompt action to correct and end a discriminatory housing practice by a third-party” tenant where the owner “knew or should have known of the discriminatory conduct and had the power to correct it.”
The court acknowledged that the owner’s ability to control a given resident is relevant to determining the owner’s liability. In some cases, an owner may not have enough control over its residents to be held liable for failing to intervene. According to HUD, the owner can be held liable only in circumstances where the landlord had the power to take corrective action yet failed to do so. That would mean that the landlord escapes liability under the FHA if the appropriate corrective action is “beyond the scope of its power to act.”
In this case, the resident’s complaint adequately alleged that the owner and manager engaged in intentional racial discrimination by tolerating and/or facilitating a hostile environment, even though they had authority to “counsel, discipline, or evict [the neighbor] due to his continued harassment of [the resident],” and also had “intervened against other tenants at [the site] regarding non-race-related violations of their leases or of the law.”
The complaint alleged that the owner and manager had actual knowledge of the neighbor’s criminal racial harassment of the resident but, because it involved race, intentionally allowed it to continue even though they had the power to end it. It may turn out that the owner tried but failed to respond. Or it may be that the owner was powerless to evict or otherwise deal with the neighbor. But the resident was entitled further proceedings to determine the level of control the owner and management group actually exercised over tenants and whether they had the power to act to stop the neighbor’s abuse [Francis v. King Park Manor, Inc., March 2019].
Coach’s Tip: Take all necessary steps to prevent—and address—discrimination or harassment at the community. Aside from ensuring that your policies and procedures conform to fair housing law, you can reduce the likelihood of a complaint by properly training and supervising all employees—not only managers and leasing staff, but also maintenance workers and anyone else who interacts with the public. And be particularly careful when hiring and supervising outside contractors or anyone else who could be considered your agent.
Promptly address any complaints of discrimination or harassment by conducting an investigation and, if warranted, taking adequate steps to stop the offending conduct. Get legal advice if necessary, and be sure to document what you’ve done so you’ll be prepared to defend yourself in case a claim is filed against you.
Just don’t try to solve the problem by doing anything that looks like you’re punishing the victim. According to HUD regulations, taking prompt action to correct and end the discriminatory conduct may not include any action that penalizes or harms the aggrieved person, such as evicting a resident who complains to you about discrimination or harassment by an employee, agent, or another resident.
CRIMINAL BACKGROUND CHECKS
Have you reviewed your criminal screening policies lately? If it’s been a while since you last reviewed your policy, it’s important to ensure that it doesn’t run afoul of HUD’s 2016 guidelines explaining how federal fair housing law applies to the use of criminal records in both conventional and assisted housing communities.
The HUD guidance doesn’t prevent communities from screening applicants based on their criminal history, but communities could face liability under fair housing law if its criminal history policy, without justification, has a disparate impact—or discriminatory effect—on minority applicants. It’s important to review the guidance in detail, but there are some steps you should take ASAP to reduce the risk of fair housing trouble. If, for example, your policy still considers arrest records in criminal background screenings, you should make some changes immediately. HUD’s new guidelines flatly say that excluding someone based on arrest records is likely to have a discriminatory effect based on race and national origin.
Check whether your policy still lists “all felonies” or long-ago felonies as reasons not to rent to someone. If so, you may be headed for trouble because the guidelines call into question the lawfulness of excluding people based on criminal convictions—without consideration of what the conviction was for or how long ago it occurred.
Example: In January 2019, a court refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed by an applicant who claimed that a community discriminated against him on the basis of race when it denied his rental application based on its policy to automatically exclude anyone with a felony conviction from renting a unit at the community.
The applicant was an African-American man with a felony conviction. At the time he submitted his application, the applicant met the income eligibility requirement for the unit he applied for, had no prior evictions, and didn’t have a bad credit history. The community allegedly notified him that his application had been denied due to a felony on his criminal record. The applicant said he called twice to request an appeal, but no one returned his calls.
The applicant sued, accusing the community of discrimination because its criminal background policy had a disparate impact based on race. According to the complaint, the applicant alleged that the community had an outwardly neutral policy of automatically excluding anyone with a felony conviction, but the policy had a disparate impact based on race because statistics showed that blanket bans based on criminal history resulted in the denial of housing opportunities at a disproportionate rate for African-Americans and minorities.
The court rejected the community’s request to dismiss the case. The applicant could pursue his disparate impact claim because the statistical racial disparity he relied on was directly related to its alleged policy of excluding a person with a felony conviction from renting at the community [Jackson v. Tryon Park Apartments, Inc., January 2019].
Check whether your policy allows applicants to explain the background of a felony conviction. The HUD guidelines say that communities should offer applicants with criminal records an opportunity to explain the circumstances and what’s happened since then—something akin to the “interactive” process for disability-related reasonable accommodation requests.
Example: In April 2019, a court dismissed claims by an applicant who accused a public housing authority of race discrimination by denying him housing because of his criminal record.
In his complaint, the applicant alleged that he applied to be placed on the public housing waiting list, requesting placement in the first available housing with wheelchair accessibility. At the time he applied in 2016, the PHA required a credit check and criminal background check for all applicants. The policy stated that certain factors could lead to a mandatory denial, including a homicide-related offense. The policy provided applicants with the opportunity to dispute the accuracy and relevancy of the information through an informal hearing.
After an interview, the PHA denied his application for two reasons: a police record—a felony guilty plea to involuntary manslaughter in 1997—and a landlord/tenant judgment against him for $871.
At his hearing, the applicant clarified that his conviction was for a misdemeanor, not a felony, and provided an explanation for the landlord/tenant dispute: He had missed payments only because he had avoided the rental office after being sexually harassed by an employee there.
The PHA reversed its decision regarding his conviction and gave him 30 days to provide proof that he had entered a repayment plan to resolve the landlord/tenant dispute.
The applicant didn’t meet the 30-day deadline, so the PHA upheld the denial of his application. A week later, he sent in the rental payment agreement and the PHA granted his application. Eventually, he signed a lease for a unit at a PHA property.
The applicant sued, accusing the PHA of race discrimination in violation of fair housing law and his due process rights by denying his application because of his criminal record.
Siding with the PHA, the court dismissed the case. The applicant claimed that the PHA discriminated against him and violated his due process rights by refusing to house him because of his criminal record, but the exact opposite was true: Although the PHA initially found him ineligible for housing because of his homicide-related offense, the PHA reversed its decision after a hearing revealed that the offense was only a misdemeanor. Nothing in the record showed that he was the victim of housing discrimination or that he was denied due process.
“There is no evidence that the PHA’s criminal history policy violates state or federal fair housing laws or the Constitution. [The applicant’s] case presents an example of due process at work. Although the PHA may have erred in its initial decision to deny [his] application for public housing, the PHA corrected that decision after giving [the applicant] a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate the PHA’s error” [Hall v. Philadelphia Housing Authority, April 2019].
Coach’s Tip: Whatever your policy on criminal background checks, be sure that you apply it consistently—without regard to race, color, national origin, or other protected characteristics. Applying it only to applicants who are members of racial or ethnic minorities, but not to white applicants, is a sure way to trigger a fair housing complaint.
Example: In October 2018, the Justice Department sued a Tennessee community and its property management company for allegedly denying the application of an African-American applicant because of his criminal record, despite approving the rental applications of two white people with disqualifying felony convictions.
The case dates back to 2012 involving a man living with his ex-wife at the community, who completed a lease application in which he disclosed a felony conviction for writing a bad check. According to the complaint, the community’s resident selection guidelines provided for rejection of applicants who had a felony conviction within the last 10 years as well as any conviction for the sale, distribution, or manufacture of controlled substances or certain sexual offenses.
According to the applicant, the community’s resident manager denied his lease application because of the policy not to rent to felons. Allegedly, she also told him that he was no longer allowed on the property because he was a felon.
Around the same time, according to the complaint, at least two other applicants who were not African American and who had criminal records in violation of the resident selection guidelines were approved for housing at the community. Allegedly, both disclosed their convictions on their applications: The first had a conviction for felony sexual battery and was on the national sex offender database; the second pleaded guilty to felony drug charges and was serving probation [U.S. v. Dyersburg Apartments, LTD., October 2018].
Court: Tenant-Screening Services Must Comply with Fair Housing Act
In a landmark civil rights decision, a court ruled that consumer reporting agencies must comply with the FHA when conducting tenant-screening services for landlords.
Fair housing advocates filed the lawsuit against a consumer reporting agency after its tenant screening product allegedly disqualified a disabled Latino man with no criminal convictions from moving in with his mother. The complaint alleged that the company’s screening product provided landlords with an “accept or decline” decision based on an assessment of an applicant’s criminal record. The lawsuit claimed that the screening company’s product discriminates based on race, national origin, and disability in violation of the Fair Housing Act.
The court rejected the company’s claim that the case should be dismissed because fair housing laws didn’t reach its services. According to the court, the company “held itself out as a company with the knowledge and ingenuity to screen housing applicants by interpreting criminal records and specifically advertised its ability to improve ‘Fair Housing compliance.’” Because consumer reporting companies functionally make rental admission decisions for landlords that use their services, they must make those decisions in accordance with fair housing requirements [Fair Housing Center et al. v. CoreLogic Rental Property Solutions, LLC, March 2019].
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|June 2019 Coach's Quiz