Federal Appeals Court Rules That Landlord Has a Duty to Protect Tenant From Racial Harassment by Neighbor
Landlords have a clearly established legal duty not to harass tenants based on their race or any other legally protected characteristics. But what if the person committing the harassment is not the landlord, but someone else, such as a neighbor? If the landlord knows of the harassment, does it have a duty to protect the tenant? At least where the level of harassment is severe, the answer is yes, according to a recent federal appeals court decision. Francis v. Kings Park Manor, Inc., No. 15-1823, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 36221 (2d Cir. Dec. 6, 2019).
The plaintiff in this case, who is African-American, alleged that a neighbor subjected him to a “brazen and relentless” pattern of racial harassment, including abuse and threats. Among other things, the neighbor called plaintiff by racial epithets, accompanied by obscene language, and made at least one death threat. These events left the plaintiff fearful for his safety and he reported them to the police. The harassment was so severe that it led to the neighbor’s being arrested for and pleading guilty to hate crimes charges.
The plaintiff filed a lawsuit under the Fair Housing Act and other laws, naming not only the neighbor but also the landlord and the property manager. In the complaint, the plaintiff asserted that both he and the police had told the landlord about the problem, but that the landlord did nothing to try to stop it. In fact, the plaintiff alleged that the landlord told its property manager “not to get involved,” even though the landlord had previously intervened to address other tenant disputes that were not race-related. The landlord moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that it had no duty to protect a tenant from harassment by persons who were not employees of the landlord or otherwise affiliated with it. A federal trial judge accepted the landlord’s argument and dismissed the complaint, but the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed and reinstated it. The court held that the Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination not only at the time property is sold or rented, but throughout the term of a landlord-tenant relationship. Further, the court held that a landlord may be liable for tolerating tenant-on-tenant racially hostile conduct “in at least some circumstances.” In particular, a landlord may be guilty of intentionally discriminatory conduct, in violation of the Fair Housing Act as well as the Civil Rights Act, when it knows that this conduct is going on and does not attempt to prevent it, at the same time as the landlord is enforcing rules on other matters.
The Second Circuit’s decision may not be the last word on this case. The landlord has indicated that it will be asking the court to rehear the case “en banc,” meaning before the entire 13-member court rather than the usual three-judge panel. One judge on the three-judge panel filed a strong dissenting opinion, so the request for en banc reconsideration may draw some support, even though this procedure is very rare in the Second Circuit. Otherwise, the case will return to the District Court (the federal trial court) for further proceedings.