by Cathy L. Lucrezi, Attorney at Law

“Harassment” is used so often in our vernacular, the word fails to even raise an eyebrow. Not so in fair housing law. “Discriminatory Harassment” has a specific meaning and a powerful impact.

Under fair housing laws, “discriminatory harassment” includes any abusive, foul or threatening language or behavior directed at a tenant because of that person’s protected class. [Protected classes include race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, familial status, as well as any protected classes created by local ordinances.]

Harassment occurs when the landlord or staff or other tenants, target a tenant with hostile conduct. The hostile conduct might be using racial epithets, making sexually suggestive proposals, yelling profanity at a person, persistently photographing the person in common areas, and any other annoying and threatening behavior.

Of course, not all annoying conduct is a fair housing violation. A person who yells profanity at his neighbor may simply be a jerk. If the person yells the profanity because he dislikes his neighbor’s religious beliefs, then it is discriminatory harassment.

You would be correct in assuming the landlord can be sued for damages if he or his staff is the source of the harassment. However, you might be surprised to learn the landlord can be held liable even if the harassment comes from other tenants.

Staff who witness or learn of harassment should investigate the complaint. If there is merit to it, a notice of noncompliance should be served to the harasser. If the harassment is repeated following expiration of the notice, termination and eviction may be appropriate.

Prevention helps avoid harassment complaints. The landlord should foster an environment that is free from discriminatory harassment or intimidation. All staff should model appropriate non-discriminatory behavior. That means, no offensive “jokes” or names, no matter how friendly the listener may be. All staff should attend fair housing training. If you would like to adopt a staff policy of “no harassment” that includes directions to staff on how to handle complaints, contact our office for a sample policy.

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