For those in property management, navigating fair housing laws is a critical aspect of your role. Today, we delve into a complex situation involving fair housing claims of retaliation and eviction. This case highlights the nuances and legal intricacies property managers must be aware of when dealing with complaints and lease violations.
The Case at Hand
In a recent case, a tenant, a mother of five, residing in a property owned by a housing authority, encountered a challenging situation. The conflict began over a rent-related dispute with the property manager. The tenant perceived the manager’s response as rude and hostile, leading her to express her intent to file an internal complaint. Subsequently, she received a final notice of lease violation, which she believed was in retaliation for her complaint. Adding to her grievances, the Plaintiff alleged that she and her children were denied access to a community event.
In response, the tenant filed an internal complaint alleging discrimination against her biracial children. She escalated the issue by filing a Fair Housing Complaint with HUD. Within five days of the defendants receiving notice of this complaint, the tenant received a notice of non-renewal and was eventually evicted.
Understanding Retaliation in the Context of Fair Housing
The Fair Housing Act protects tenants from retaliation when they assert their rights against discrimination. However, it’s essential to distinguish between general complaints (e.g., about maintenance issues) and those that allege discrimination. While action taken against a tenant for making a general complaint may not violate the Fair Housing Act, retaliation for asserting anti-discrimination rights is illegal. Property managers should be aware that some state landlord-tenant statutes offer broader protections against retaliation for general complaints.
Best Practices in Handling Discrimination Complaints
When a resident alleges discrimination or threatens legal action, which is considered to be “protected conduct,” it’s not advisable to entirely cease communication with that resident or to stop enforcing the lease. However, the timing of any action taken after such a complaint is critical. HUD, juries, or legal authorities will scrutinize the sequence of events and any other evidence connecting the adverse action to the complaint to determine if actions taken shortly after a complaint constitute retaliation.
In instances where a tenant subsequently violates their lease or fails to pay rent, issuing a lease violation notice is still permissible. Yet, property managers must exercise caution. It is crucial to thoroughly document all interactions and grounds for any actions taken after a resident engages in protected conduct to defend against potential retaliation claims.
Property management professionals must navigate the delicate balance between enforcing lease terms and respecting tenant rights under the Fair Housing Act. This case underscores the importance of understanding the legal framework surrounding fair housing claims, especially regarding retaliation and eviction. Keeping detailed records and being mindful of the timing and reasons for any actions taken can help protect against allegations of unfair practices, ensuring compliance with both fair housing laws and state landlord-tenant statutes.