In a decision handed down on December 6, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit established that, under the Fair Housing Act, a landlord who addresses other forms of tenant misconduct unrelated to race must also take reasonable steps to protect one tenant from racial harassment at the hands of another. Reversing a trial court order dismissing federal and state law claims, Francis v. Kings Park Manor held that it constitutes intentional racial discrimination for a landlord to turn a selectively blind eye to such discriminatory conduct.
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 decision clears the way for Francis’s suit to go forward. But its impact may be felt more widely, because it makes clear that the Fair Housing Act’s anti-discrimination requirement extends to the ongoing relationship between landlord and tenant, rather than applying only to the rental transaction or events that effectively evict the tenant (as the defendants argued). As the court put it: “With the objective of building a racially integrated society in mind, it would make no sense for Congress to require landlords to rent homes without regard to race but then permit them to harass or otherwise discriminate against tenants because of race.”