Thumbs Up! Establishing that a Landlord has a Duty to Combat Racial Harassment

Thumbs up to law firm Relman, Dane & Colfax on a federal appeal win establishing a landlord’s duty to protect a tenant from racial harassment by a neighbor. 

In a decision handed down on March 4, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit established that a landlord who knows or should know about racial harassment of a tenant by a neighbor and fails “to take prompt action to correct and end the harassment while having the power to do so” can be held liable under the Fair Housing Act. The decision in Francis v. Kings Park Manor is one of the few federal appeals court decisions directly addressing a landlord’s obligation in the case of tenant-on-tenant harassment.  

The case arose out of a rental agreement Donahue Francis signed with Kings Park Manor in 2010. Shortly after moving in, the complaint alleges, a neighbor named Raymond Endres began to subject him to what the Second Circuit aptly called “a brazen and relentless campaign of racial harassment, abuse, and threats.” This discriminatory conduct, which included repeated use of the N-word and at least one death threat, ultimately led to Endres being charged with, and pleading guilty to, a state hate crime.

Francis alleges that, although both he and the police repeatedly told building management of this conduct, management did nothing other than advise him to continue calling the police. As a result, Francis feared for his safety for the several months of Endres’s campaign, and experienced significant emotional distress until Endres left Kings Park Manor in January 2013.  Relman, Dane & Colfax filed this lawsuit on behalf of Francis in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York against Endres, Kings Park Manor, and property manager Corrine Downing.

The district court entered a default judgment against Endres, but it dismissed Francis’s other claims, reasoning that a landlord has no duty to act. The Second Circuit reversed that judgment and remanded for further proceedings.  The Second Circuit not only cleared the way for Francis’s suit to go forward, but it made clear that the Fair Housing Act’s anti-discrimination requirement extends to every part of the housing relationship, including discrimination that occurs after the sale or rental transaction is completed.

The court also acknowledged, and found persuasive, Department of Housing and Urban Development regulations that require housing providers both to combat tenant-on-tenant harassment and to avoid having their own agents engage in harassing behavior.     

Congratulations to the Relman, Dane & Colfax litigation team led by Sasha Samberg-Champion, who argued the appeal, along with John P. Relman and Yiyang Wu!