Court Finds Landlord Liable for Failing to Address Racial Harassment of Tenant

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued a decision regarding racial harassment occurring at a Kings Park apartment complex. The Plaintiff, Donahue Francis, was subjected to a continuous campaign of racial harassment, abuse, and threats from his next-door neighbor. The conduct included derogatory language, death threats, and harassing conduct such as attempting to photograph the interior of Francis’ apartment. The conduct continued and Francis contacted the Suffolk County Police out of fear for his life. The Suffolk County Police contacted the apartment complex, Kings Park Manor (KPM), and informed the complex about the neighbor’s activity. KPM did nothing in response to the call from the Suffolk County Police, so Francis wrote them a letter directly.

Following the letter, and unrelated to any action by the complex, the neighbor was arrested for aggravated harassment. Francis again wrote to KPM and advised them of the arrest. KPM again did not respond to the letter, and continued to let the neighbor reside in the complex. The neighbor’s lease eventually expired and he moved out of the building. He later pled guilty to harassment and a State Court entered an order of protection prohibiting the neighbor from contacting Francis.

Francis then filed a lawsuit in the District Court of the Eastern District of New York, alleging violations of the Federal Fair Housing Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and New York State Human Rights Law. The case was one of first impression in regards to suing an apartment complex for the acts of a tenant. KPM immediately moved for a motion to dismiss which was granted by the District Court. The District Court based its decision on the fact that the conduct was not the result of direct, intentional racial discrimination on the part of KPM. Francis appealed.

A 3 Justice panel of the Court of Appeals vacated the dismissal of the action against KPM, holding that the claim can proceed against KPM. In coming to their decision, the Court found that the Fair Housing Act not only applied to the sale or rental of a unit or housing but also, to certain benefits or protections flowing from the sale or rental. The Court relied on a 2016 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development promulgated rule which stated that “hostile environment harassment” is potentially a violation of the Fair Housing Act if it involved “unwelcomed conduct that is sufficiently severe or pervasive as to interfere with: … the use or enjoyment of a dwelling.” In applying it to the case at bar, the Court found that a landlord may be liable to a tenant for failing to act on tenant-on-tenant racial harassment of which it knew of or reasonably should have known and had the power to address. They found the argument that Francis had failed to allege KPM intentionally discriminated against Francis unpersuasive.

Under this decision, landlords within the Second Circuit states of New York and Connecticut must take racial harassment allegations seriously. It will be seen if the Supreme Court of the United States will grant certiorari and issue a decision on this issue. Although the Supreme Court has time and again ruled on Federal Housing Act violations, the new power balance on the Court leaves a question as to whether this decision will stand going forward.

If you are a landlord or tenant concerned with discrimination on your premises, contact an experienced landlord/tenant attorney for help. The Long Island real estate and landlord/tenant lawyers of McGuire, Peláez & Bennett, PC are sensitive to your needs, skilled in handling real estate matters, and will fight zealously for your rights. For more information or to schedule a consultation, contact our Central Islip real estate lawyers at (631) 348-1702 or fill out our contact form.

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