A Case Regarding Discrimination on the Basis of Sex
On October 14, 2021, the court entered a consent order in United States v. White River Regional Housing Authority and Duane Johnson (E.D. Ark.). The complaint, which was filed on September 30, 2021, alleged that the White River Regional Housing Authority (WRRHA) and its former employee, Duane Johnson, violated the Fair Housing Act (FHA) by discriminating on the basis of sex when Defendant Johnson subjected the complainant to severe or pervasive sexual harassment. The consent order requires WRRHA to pay $70,000 to the complainant, adopt and maintain an anti-discrimination policy with a complaint procedure, and provide training to its employees on the Fair Housing Act. The settlement also permanently bars Johnson from directly or indirectly participating in the management of any residential rental property and from directly or indirectly participating in any public housing program, including being a manager or employee for any public housing program or having any ownership interest in any entity that provides housing that is the subject of federally funded assistance payments or tenant-based assistance. The case was referred to the Division after the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) received a complaint, conducted an investigation, and issued a charge of discrimination.
Press Release (10/01/2021)
Case Open Date: Thursday, September 30, 2021
Case Name: United States v. White River Regional Housing Authority and Duane Johnson (E.D. Ark.)
Topic: Civil Rights
Tags: Fair Housing Act; FHA; WRRHA; HCV Program; public housing; domestic violence; abuse; sexual harassment
Industry Code: None
Component: Civil Rights Division
Civil Rights – Housing and Civil Enforcement Section
Complaint – United States v. White River Regional Housing Authority and Duane Johnson (E.D. Ark.)
Consent Order – United States v. White River Regional Housing Authority and Duane Johnson (E.D. Ark.)
The Defendant, in this case, was not only a property manager but was also the Housing Choice Voucher program coordinator for the local housing authority. He was alleged to have subjected the Plaintiff to unwelcome sexual harassment by touching her leg, requesting nude photographs in exchange for assistance with locating housing, sending her photographs, and making comments about her appearance. Courts apply a standard that any illegal harassment must be severe or pervasive (i.e., continuing occurrences) before liability will attach, and HUD concluded in its administrative investigation that these circumstances met one or both of those standards.
Because it may not be possible for supervisors or staff at the corporate level to regularly monitor on-site staff, or in this case, staff that has direct contact with applicants, it is always a best practice to implement a thorough sexual harassment policy, both for employees and for tenants/participants. A policy directed at tenants/participants should explain what actions may constitute sexual harassment and, most importantly, how to file a complaint and to who to direct it. Instructing tenants to direct a sexual harassment complaint to a Property Manager is acceptable; however, make sure to list an alternative contact person in the event that the tenant believes the Property Manager is the employee engaging in the illegal activity. Having a sexual harassment policy is only effective if it is provided or posted in such a way that tenants (or participants in this case) are aware of it.
Having a thorough policy not only for employees but also for tenants/participants is a good idea for several reasons: 1) it can serve as a potential defense for a company if it was unaware of the actions of a rogue employee; 2) it provides more of an opportunity for a company to learn of an employee’s actions that may be illegal or inappropriate and immediately take steps to correct it. The absence of a policy not only makes it difficult for someone who is being subjected to sexual harassment to report it to the company but also, without another means of recourse, may make it more likely that he/she will jump directly into legal action. This case again highlights the importance of having proper policies and procedures in place as well as having them regularly reviewed by a fair housing attorney.