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Landlord Not Responsible For Racial Harassment By Tenant

Donahue Francis, a Black man, lived in an apartment at Kings Park Manor in Suffolk, New York. KPM owned and operated his apartment complex. For approximately seven months, Raymond Endres, a fellow tenant, verbally attacked Francis with racist insults and at least one death threat. Francis reported the threats to the police, who notified KPM. He renewed his lease without mentioning these issues. However, Francis did report the incidents with Endres to KPM on three separate occasions but did not request any action by KPM. Endres eventually moved out.

Francis sued KPM under the federal Fair Housing Act, alleging racial discrimination. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, reviewed the federal district court’s dismissal of the case and a circuit court panel’s revival of the claims.

The Fair Housing Act makes it unlawful to “discriminate against any person in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection therewith, because of race” Francis did not have any direct evidence of discrimination by the landlord. Thus, the court analyzed the case under the same framework used in Title VII cases. Under that framework, the circuit court found Francis failed to meet his burden because he did not provide any factual basis to infer KPM’s inaction was motivated by racial animus. Francis also argued KPM intentionally discriminated against him under a theory of deliberate indifference. Courts apply this theory against schools and prisons where the party has “substantial control over the context in which harassment occurs” and a “custodial [power over the harasser] permitting a degree of supervision and control that could not be exercised over free adults.” Francis did not provide any factual basis to infer KPM had such control over Endres. Moreover, the court noted such control could not be “reasonably presumed to exist in the typically arms-length relationship between landlord and tenant.” KPM’s power to evict was not enough to reflect substantial control. Francis also needed to show that KPM’s response to the harassment was “clearly unreasonable” under the circumstances. Because KPM knew the police were involved and Endres was ultimately arrested, the court did not find KPM acted unreasonably.