Judge Says Landlord Not Liable for Ex-Tenant's Racial Harassment

Residential landlords must always be aware of their obligations under federal and state anti-discrimination laws. Obviously, a landlord cannot refuse to rent housing to members of minority groups. But what about cases where a tenant claims racial discrimination based on the actions of another tenant? A recent decision by a federal judge on Long Island examined this potentially landmark legal question.

Francis v. Kings Park Manor, Inc.

The plaintiff is an African-American who rents an apartment from the defendant in Suffolk County. Throughout 2012, the plaintiff was the subject of repeated racial epithets and harassment from his next door neighbor. The neighbor's abuse reached the point where the plaintiff filed multiple complaints with the Suffolk County Police. This led to the neighbor's arrest on misdemeanor charges of aggravated harassment, which in turn led to a restraining order. The neighbor ultimately vacated the apartment complex when his lease expired.

The plaintiff then sued the owner and the property manager of his apartment building in federal court. He accused them of violating the Fair Housing Act, a federal law that prohibits racial discrimination in the “terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling.” The FHA is designed to protect members of minority groups from “coercion, intimidation, threats, or interference” with respect to housing.

Typically, FHA claims involve discrimination by the owner of a building or its agent, such as a property manager. But in this case, the plaintiff alleged discrimination as a result of harassment from another tenant in the building. The plaintiff's argument here was that by failing to evict the neighbor even after receiving multiple complaints about his racist behavior, the owner and property manager committed an FHA violation.

The judge assigned to the case, Arthur D. Spratt, said this was a “novel” argument for the federal courts in New York. Also unusual was the potential liability for housing discrimination given the plaintiff had already acquired housing from the defendants without incident. Other federal judges in New York have recognized FHA claims based on the creation of a “hostile environment,” Judge Spratt said, which mirrors other federal civil rights laws addressing employment discrimination. But the law on this subject remains unsettled, both in New York and nationally.

Even if a landlord can be sued under the FHA for creating a hostile environment towards minorities, Judge Spratt found the plaintiff here failed to allege specific facts that would prove such a claim. The owner and property manager are not responsible for the neighbor's racist statements unless there is some evidence that “racial animus” caused them not to take action. The plaintiff presented no such evidence, only a broad claim that race was a motivating factor. Accordingly the judge dismissed the FHA claims against the property owner and manager.

That said, Judge Spratt did not dismiss the entire lawsuit. He did allow the plaintiff to proceed with a breach of contract claim against the property owner alone. This claim is based on the alleged violation of the “warranty of habitability,” which is implied in every lease governed by New York law. Under this warranty, a landlord may be held liable for the acts of a third party which affects the health and safety of a tenant.

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Even though the landlord here will not be held liable for an FHA violation, the mere fact it had to defend against such a claim illustrates the ongoing legal challenges faced by all property owners and managers. If you need advice from a qualified New York real estate attorney on a landlord-tenant dispute or any related matter, contact our office today.