Fighting Back Against Predatory Landlords

Landlord Sexual Harassment on the Rise During Pandemic. While there have always been predatory landlords that have taken advantage of their tenants, the incidence of sexual harassment has only risen during the pandemic. According to a Buzzfeed article, landlords have gotten bolder as more women struggle to pay their rent. As these women ask for extensions and patience, male landlords have asked for sexual favors in exchange. While we have heard a lot about the #MeToo social media movement regarding sexual harassment on the job, we hear less about sexual harassment from landlords, property managers or even repairmen. Complaints, however, are on the rise. Even with the current moratorium on evictions, landlords are still pressuring their tenants with sex in lieu of rent. Experts have said that these propositions are usually not innocent but come from landlords who are “serial offenders” at being creepy predators.

Sexual Harassment by Landlords is Illegal. While this may seem obvious, there are federal and state laws that specifically outlaw sexual harassment from landlords. The federal law governing this area is the Fair Housing Act. Under the Act, there are two types of forbidden sexual harassment: (1) quid pro quo harassment and (2) hostile environment harassment.  Quid pro quo harassment happens when a landlord conditions being able to rent a place or continuing to rent a place on providing sexual favors to the landlord. For example, if a landlord evicts or attempts to evict a tenant for refusing his sexual advances, this would be considered quid pro quo harassment. Hostile environment harassment happens with a tenant is subject to “severe or pervasive” unwelcome sexual harassment that interferes with their enjoyment of the rented premises. Some examples of this can include a landlord making comments about a tenant’s body, attempts to inappropriately touch the tenant, and sexually-charged text messages soliciting sex from the tenant. If you feel like your landlord is violating the Fair Housing Act, you can file a complaint with the fair housing department here or you can speak with a private attorney who handles these kinds of cases.

If you’re a Utah resident, rather than applying to the federal housing department, you can make your complaint with Utah’s Labor Commission, Antidiscrimination and Labor Division. Under the Utah Fair Housing Act, the Utah Labor Commission is tasked with taking your complaints and investigating them. They will also forward them to the HUD fair housing department. Their website states that “based on a cooperative agreement with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, anyone who files a housing discrimination complaint with our office is automatically filing with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).” This is called a “dual filing.” Keep in mind that there is just a short window to make such a claim with them. Under Utah law, you need to make your complaint within 180 days for there to be “dual jurisdiction” and for them to investigate your case. If you miss this window and it is less than 300 days from the last incident, you can still make your complaint through this agency and they will pass it on to the federal housing department (HUD) for investigation and the Utah agency will NOT investigate. In private actions brought under the Utah Fair Housing Act, remedies the court will allow include an injunction against the landlord to cease from the unlawful activity, actual damages, punitive damages and reasonable attorney fees and costs. See UCA 57-21-12(7). Other remedies can include emotional distress for having to deal with the predatory landlord.

In addition to being subject to a civil action, a landlord propositioning their tenant could also potentially be criminally liable for “human trafficking” in violation of Utah Code 76-5-308. If your landlord is creeping around your bushes, coming to visit without notice at odd hours or following you around, they might also be guilty of stalking under Utah law. By complaining to the police, you could potentially also get a restraining order to keep them from coming near you.

Evidence to Collect. As with all sexual harassment cases, the best evidence for you to collect to support your case is written, photographic or video. Examples of persuasive evidence can include text messages from the landlord who is propositioning you. This also includes suggestive pictures they might be sending you. A landlord who sends you sexually-charged messages and a selfie of himself undressed is setting himself up for an easy prosecution by the HUD authorities or a private attorney who takes the case. While witnesses can also be crucial in he-said, she-said situations, they take a backseat to objective evidence such as text messages or emails which carry more persuasive weight as they are seen as “objective” evidence. If you are in the middle of being sexually harassed by a landlord and the landlord is being careful by not sending you text messages, you can still send him text message documenting his harassing behavior. An example text might read: “It was wrong of you to ask me to sleep with you in exchange for waiving a late fee.” When a landlord responds with an “I’m sorry,” or something along those lines, it is suggestive that your allegation is true. Along the same lines, you can use apps on your phone to record phone calls with the perpetrator.

Sample Settlement in Another Jurisdiction. Although we don’t hear very often of settlements involving landlord sexual harassment, they do occasionally make the news. For example, a settlement for landlord sexual harassment was recently reported by the IndyStar where a landlord was alleged to have asked a female tenant to have sex via text messages after she was furloughed from work at the beginning of the pandemic. The landlord was sued by the woman and the Indiana fair housing authority. The case was settled a few months later for $45,900.

Resources to Combat Landlord Sexual Harassment. If you have been affected by landlord sexual harassment, take a look at this video to see if solutions offered by fair housing authorities may apply to you. If after viewing this video you feel you have been subject to this kind of harassment, give us a call. All consultations are free, and if we can’t help, we can point you to resources that will.

Ron Kramer represents plaintiffs in sexual harassment and assault cases as the lead trial attorney at Kramer Law Group in West Jordan, Utah. You can reach him at 801-601-1229 or ron@ronkramerlaw.com.