MHCO Columns

Landlords Can Be Liable for Tenant-on-Tenant Harassment

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Landlords may be liable for discrimination if they harass or allow their leasing staff, managers, and other agents to harass tenants on the basis of race, etc. Recent cases pose the controversial question of whether landlords can also be liable for the harassment committed by their tenants. The two federal courts that had specifically addressed this issue until now have reached conflicting results. In 2023, another federal court weighed in on the question of tenant-on-tenant liability.

Situation: A tenant claimed he was sexually harassed by his next-door neighbor, citing a series of incidents in which the neighbor allegedly:

  • Insulted him in Spanish;
  • Blocked his path so that his chest touched the neighbor’s chest;
  • Leered at his crotch area;
  • Snuck up behind him; and
  • Told gardeners to use a leaf blower to blow dust toward his apartment.    

The tenant claimed that all of this amounted to a hostile housing environment and sued the landlord for sex discrimination.

You Make the Call: Did the tenant have a valid claim for tenant-on-tenant harassment?

Answer: No

Ruling: The California federal district court granted the landlord’s motion for summary judgment. A landlord could, in fact, be liable for a hostile housing environment, as long as tenants can show they were subjected to: (1) unwelcomed (2) sexual harassment that was (3) “sufficiently severe or pervasive so as to interfere with or deprive the tenant of [his] right to use or enjoy [his] home.”

However, the court continued, the neighbor’s alleged conduct in this case, while no doubt annoying, wasn’t severe enough to prove a hostile housing environment interfering with the tenant’s enjoyment of his apartment [Pardo-Pena v. Spector, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13904, 2023 WL 2202515].      

Takeaway: The issue of landlord liability for tenant-on-tenant harassment remains unresolved, except, arguably, in the Second Circuit, which has rejected the theory. While ultimately decided in favor of the landlord, the Pardo-Pena ruling opens a new dimension in the controversy by likening housing to the workplace and exposing landlords to the risk of liability for “hostile housing environment” the way an employer can be liable for a “hostile work environment.”

Bottom Line: Regardless of what the law says, landlords have not only a moral but business imperative in seeking to provide a respectful housing environment in which no tenant has to endure harassment of any kind. Best practice: The starting point for preventing tenant-on-tenant harassment is to create and implement a written anti-harassment policy as part of your community rules. Such a policy should include seven elements:

  • A statement of policy that condemns harassment and expresses your company’s commitment to provide a respectful housing environment enabling all tenants are to enjoy their tenancy;
  • A clear and broad definition of harassment as including any “action, conduct, or comment that can reasonably be expected to cause offense, humiliation, or other physical or psychological injury or illness to a tenant or other person,” accompanied by a list of examples;
  • A process or mechanism that tenants can use to report the harassment they experience or witness;
  • Assurances that tenants will suffer no retaliation of any kind for reporting harassment in good faith;
  • Protocols and procedures for responding to, investigating, and resolving the harassment complaints that you receive;
  • Language indicating that tenants will be held accountable for any harassment they’re found to have committed; and
  • Clarification that filing a harassment complaint with you doesn’t take away a tenant’s right to file a housing discrimination complaint (to the extent the harassment is based on race, sex, etc.) with HUD or state fair housing agencies.