MHCO Columns

Legal Cases From 2021 & What You Need to Know - Tenant on Tenant Harassment

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We’re all pretty familiar with what the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) says. The real challenge is figuring out what it actually means, as in real life. If you use Fair Housing Coach, it’s a good bet that you’re among the vast majority of landlords who are committed to principles of fair housing and try hard to comply with the rules. The problem is that those rules can be vague, confusing, and even contradictory. The only sure way to find out if you’re meeting all of the requirements is to get sued for discrimination and submit to the judgment of the investigator, court, or fair housing tribunal. Of course, that’s hardly a practical strategy; in fact, the whole point of compliance is to avoid getting embroiled in investigation and litigation in the first place.  

Luckily, there’s a better approach. Look at the actual cases involving other landlords and draw the appropriate lessons. Knowing what landlords did right and wrong enables you to make informed judgments about and improve the effectiveness of your own compliance efforts. Regrettably, you may not have the time or legal training to track down and analyze the cases—or the budget to hire an attorney to do it. The good news is that we did the heavy lifting for you. This month’s lesson breaks down the key FHA rulings from 2021, explaining not just who won and who lost, but why and what practical compliance lessons you can take from the case.

Case #1: Landlord May Be Liable for Tenant-on-Tenant Harassment

Landlords are clearly liable for the sexual, racial, and other discriminatory harassment committed by their employees and other agents. But does that liability extend to third parties they don’t directly control?

Situation: A tenant directs a steady stream of racial and ethnic harassment against her neighbors. The abuse is mostly oral, but it’s constant and egregious, including a steady diet of the “N” word and other appalling nicknames and epithets. Despite constant complaints, the homeowners association doesn’t do anything to stop her. A local fair housing advocacy organization sues the association for racial harassment.

You Make the Call: Does the organization have a valid harassment claim against the association?

Answer: Yes

Ruling: The Indiana federal court rules that the organization has a valid legal claim for harassment and rejects the association’s motion for summary judgment [Fair Hous. Ctr. of Cent. Ind., Inc. v. Vicki New, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 241159, 2021 WL 5988397].

Takeaway: While the courts have split on the issue, the Vicki ruling follows the majority view that a landlord may be directly liable for discrimination by a tenant against another tenant, if it:

  • Knows or should know of the conduct;
  • Is in a position to take action to stop the harassment—as the homeowners association was in this case; and
  • Doesn’t take any action to curb the harassment.