The Justice Department announced that the owners and property managers of a 15-unit apartment community have agreed to pay $40,000 to settle allegations that they failed to stop disability-related harassment of a resident’s daughter by neighbors and then refused to renew their lease because of her disability and that of her daughter.
The Backstory: The case involved a mother and daughter who moved into the community in 2013. Both allegedly had disabilities: The mother had cerebral palsy and a vision impairment, and her 21-year-old daughter was born with Down Syndrome. A family friend helped the family by arranging their housing, taking care of their finances, communicating with others on their behalf, and running errands for them.
While moving in, the mother said they were subjected to offensive comments and gestures by at least three other residents. Among other things, the neighbors allegedly called the daughter “mentally retarded,” and said, “You don’t belong here…you belong in an institution.” Allegedly, the neighbors said much the same thing in complaints to the owner.
A few days later, the friend said she emailed the owner, explaining that the daughter had a few rough evenings, crying loudly, but that the mother had calmed her down; she also defended the girl against the neighbors’ accusations by saying that she was a great kid and an honor student. Soon after, the friend said that the owner called her; allegedly, he said his policy was not to get involved in neighbor disputes and told them to develop a “plan” to deal with noise complaints about the daughter.
In the months that followed, the friend said she repeatedly complained to the owner and the building manager about continued harassment by the neighbors, one of whom allegedly followed them around making offensive comments and and telling them that they couldn’t use common areas. Allegedly, the mother called police, who warned the neighbor to stop the harassment, but it continued throughout their tenancy, making the daughter afraid to leave the unit.
Eventually, the residents said that their lease wasn’t renewed, so they moved out at the end of the term.
The mother filed a HUD complaint, which triggered the Justice Department to file suit against the owner and manager for fair housing violations. The complaint accused them of disability discrimination by refusing to renew the lease because of the disabilities of the mother and daughter; demanding that they develop a “plan” to deal with the daughter’s disability-related behavior; and pressuring them to move. The complaint also accused them of failure to take prompt action to correct and end the neighbors’ disability-related harassment of the residents.
Though the owner and manager denied the allegations, the parties reached a settlement to resolve the matter. In addition to paying the $40,000 settlement, the community agreed to maintain nondiscrimination housing policies, advertise that they are equal opportunity housing providers, and provide fair housing training.
“No family should have to endure degrading insults and comments in the place they call home,” Gustavo Velasquez, HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, said in a statement. “Today’s settlement reflects HUD and the Justice Department’s ongoing commitment to taking appropriate action against individuals who violate the housing rights of persons with disabilities.”
1. Rethink “Don’t Get Involved” Policy: It would be exhausting to get involved in every dispute between neighbors, but you should pay close attention to any complaints involving offensive comments or harassment by or against anyone based on race, color, or any other characteristic protected under federal, state, and local law. Depending on the nature and severity of the complaint, you could face liability for harassment under fair housing law if you knew about the offensive conduct but failed to do anything to stop it.
2. Make a Plan to Address Residents’ Harassment Complaints: Promptly address any complaints of discrimination or harassment based on a protected characteristic—regardless of whether it’s against an employee, an outside contractor, another resident, or other third party. Conduct an investigation and, if warranted, take adequate steps to stop the offending conduct. Get legal advice if necessary, and document what you’ve done to resolve the matter.
3. Stay Tuned for Upcoming Regulations: HUD is currently in the process of finalizing proposed regulations on liability for harassment under fair housing law. Under the proposed regulations, a person may be directly liable for failure to fulfill a duty to take prompt action and end a discriminatory housing practice by a third party, where the person knew or should have known of the discriminatory conduct.