Each year thousands of women are subjected to illegal sexual harassment by landlords, building managers, real estate brokers, and their employees. Those in control of often scarce rental housing may try to force women to trade sexual favors for housing benefits and subject women to a hostile environment with sexual comments and behavior. In addition, women can be driven from their homes by sexual harassment by their neighbors.

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that about 80 percent of sexual harassment victims who might be protected by the terms of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) never make any complaint to either the Justice Department or the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The problem is so significant that in April 2018, the Trump Administration launched a crackdown on sexual harassment in housing. The initiative coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act.

The FHA applies to all housing in the United States with the exception of single family homes sold or rented by someone who does not own more than three such homes, and owner occupied homes with housing for four or fewer families. All other types of housing are subject to the FHA.

Sexual harassment is a form of illegal discrimination against women, and is prohibited by the terms of the FHA. The FHA also prohibits retaliation against women who report sexual harassment in housing, who make a claim for the violation of their rights under the FHA, or who participate in an investigation of a claim of sexual harassment in housing.

What is Sexual Harassment in Housing?

Sexual Harassment in housing includes demands for sex or sexual acts in order to buy, rent, finance, or continue renting a home or apartment. It also includes demands for sex or sexual acts in order to provide services or facilities in connection with a home or apartment. And, it includes other unwelcome sexual conduct that makes it difficult to keep living in or feel comfortable in your home.

Sexual harassment claims that arise in housing are very similar to sexual harassment claims that arise in the employment area. The legal analysis of the two types of claims is very similar. Sexual harassment claims come in two types, quid pro quo claims and hostile environment claims.

Quid pro quo sexual harassment involves harassment in situations in which sex or sexual favors are demanded by someone in control of a woman’s housing in return for housing or a housing benefit.

Hostile housing environment claims involve unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature that creates an intimidating, hostile, or abusive housing environment, or has the effect of unreasonably interfering with a tenant’s housing.

Who is responsible?

A landlord or building owner may be held responsible for the harassing conduct of an employee or agent, because the owner is responsible for insuring compliance with the FHA. If the building owner does not have a policy against sexual harassment by his employees that provides for procedures for reporting sexual harassment, and having them investigated and appropriate action taken against responsible employees, then the landlord can be legally responsible for harassment about which he knew or should have known.

The FHA also protects against harassment by neighbors, cotenants, and third parties who engage in sexual harassment. In addition, such conduct could provide a basis for a claim of a hostile housing environment against the landlord if he knew or should have known of the harassment.

How are claims of sexual harassment in housing made?

There are two ways to present a claim of sexual harassment in housing. The first is to file a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the second is to file a lawsuit in federal court. These options can be pursued separately or together. Sometimes, if HUD believes a tenant’s case presents an issue of larger public importance it will refer the case to the Department of Justice and ask it to pursue a claim.

Administrative complaints with HUD must be filed within one year of the date of the incident. Complaints must be made in writing. HUD usually tries to engage the parties in conciliation while investigating the complaint. A conciliation agreement, which must be approved by HUD, can provide for binding arbitration and may also include monetary awards to the complaining party. At the end of the investigation HUD will prepare a report and issue the report even if the parties come to an agreement. If the parties cannot compromise the dispute, and HUD concludes that there was a discriminatory practice, then it will issue a charge. If HUD concludes there was no discrimination, then it will dismiss the matter. If HUD issues a charge, then the complaining party may ask for a hearing before an ALJ or for the Attorney General’s office to file a civil suit in federal court.

If an ALJ finds a discriminatory practice, then he may order the landlord to pay compensatory damages, and attorney fees, or issue an injunction. He can also impose a variety civil penalties that function like criminal fines.

If you choose to file a civil lawsuit in federal court you must file within two years of the harassment. A federal housing discrimination claim can be joined with other state law claims such as a state civil rights law claim or claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, battery, trespass, or invasion of privacy.  If the court finds that a discriminatory practice took place, then the court can award compensatory damages for the losses suffered by the complainant, punitive damages, attorney’s fees, and injunctive relief. The court can also appoint counsel for those who cannot afford to hire their own lawyer. Importantly, federal courts can issue protective orders to seal the court record, which protects the identity of the victim of sexual harassment, and fines and sanctions can be imposed on anyone who violates such an order.

If you have been subjected to sexual harassment by your landlord, his employees, or a neighbor then call us for help.