Landlords Liable for Failure to Address Racial Discrimination Between Tenants

By: Maria Filindarakis & Dakota McCauley

 

Racial harassment is a big-ticket item in today’s modern age. Can a landlord be held liable for failing to address racial discrimination between tenants, where the landlord knew of the discriminatory conduct and failed to correct it? The Second Circuit of the U.S.  Court of Appeals recently stated that a landlord may be held liable for such conduct.

Donahue Francis (“Francis”) is an African-American man who signed a residential lease with Kings Park Manor (“KPM”) in Suffolk County. Shortly after he moved in, his next-door neighbor began to subject Francis to racial harassment, abuse, and threats.  Francis then involved the Suffolk County police, who then notified KPM of the harassment. Francis also sent numerous letters to KPM himself to notify them of the discriminatory behavior, including a letter notifying KPM of the neighbor’s eventual arrest for aggravated harassment. KPM never acknowledged or responded to the concerns brought by Francis.[1]

Upon the expiration of the neighbor’s lease agreement, he vacated the apartment and plead guilty to harassment in violation of the New York Penal Law. An order of protection was then entered on behalf of Francis.

Subsequently, Francis filed a lawsuit of first impression against KPM and the neighbor in the Eastern District of New York. Francis alleged racial discrimination in violation of the Federal Fair Housing Act (“FHA”), the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and the New York State Housing Rights Law. It is important to note that this case is distinguishable from many other cases brought under the FHA because it does not involve the issue of refusing to sell or rent a premises based on race, religion, national original, marital status or disability. Rather, this case involves discrimination between two tenants already permitted to reside on the subject premises.

The Eastern District of New York held that Francis “failed to allege specific facts sufficient to support an inference that [KPM].  . . intentionally discriminated against him on the basis of his race.”[2] Further, the Court explained that Francis’ claims were too conclusory in linking KPM to the discrimination because he failed to assert a “fact-specific allegation of a causal link” between KPM and the discriminatory conduct by the neighbor.[3] Therefore, the Court granted KPM’s motion to dismiss, and Francis appealed.

Following oral arguments in front of the Court of Appeals, the Court held that Francis’ complaint adequately alleged that by tolerating and/or facilitating a hostile environment, despite KPM’s ability to counsel or evict the neighbor, KPM engaged in intentional racial discrimination. The Court further noted in its decision that KPM had intervened against conflict between other tenants not related to racial discrimination in the past, implying that landlords may be held liable for failing to address racial discrimination between tenants moving forward.[4]

In writing for the majority, Judge Raymond Lohier stated that Title VII bars both pre- and post-hiring discrimination, and that housing discrimination cases should be treated similarly. In an amicus brief submitted to the Court of Appeals in support of Francis’ appeal, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) stated that HUD has a “longstanding view that, under the FHA, a housing provider may be held liable in certain circumstances for failing to address tenant-on-tenant harassment.”[5] The majority stated that they accepted HUD’s characterization of its own regulations under the FHA. Further, the majority noted that the federal courts have “held that to establish a violation of the FHA, a plaintiff need not show discriminatory intent but need only prove that the challenged practice has a discriminatory effect.”[6] Therefore, the Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, remanded the case back to the District Court.

While this specific case has been remanded and is currently pending in the Eastern District, it is imperative that landlords be mindful that they may be held liable for failure to address any allegations of racial discrimination between tenants. As such, landlords should take appropriate and immediate action whenever a claim of racial discrimination is brought to their attention.

 

 

[1] Francis v. Kings Park Manor Inc, 91 F. Supp. 3d 420 (E.D.N.Y. 2015)

[2] Francis v. Kings Park Manor Inc, 91 F. Supp. 3d 420, 425 (E.D.N.Y. 2015)

[3] Id.

[4] Francis v. Kings Park Manor Inc, 917 F.3d 109 (2019)

[5] Francis v. Kings Park Manor Inc, 917 F.3d 109, 123 (2019)

[6] Francis v. Kings Park Manor Inc, 917 F.3d 109, 124 (2019)

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