Tenant, Contractor Behavior Can Get Property Managers Sued

May 16, 2019

REALTORS® Legislative Meetings & Trade Expo

Property managers can be held legally responsible for discrimination and harassment by contractors, such as maintenance workers, and for failing to address a tenant who is infringing on the rights of another tenant, experts said Thursday during the Property Management Forum at the REALTORS® Legislative Meetings & Trade Expo in Washington, D.C.

Further, property managers must also address issues of tenants’ visitors harassing other tenants, said Fred Underwood, director of diversity and inclusion at the National Association of REALTORS®. He encouraged property managers to have policies in place regarding tenant-on-tenant and visitor harassment before an incident occurs. “If you wait until it happens, you’re going to have lawyers coming to see you,” Underwood said.

Figurines In A Circle

© Maartje Van Caspel - EyeEm/Getty Images

John Relman, managing partner at civil rights law firm Relman, Dane & Colfax, told attendees that property managers have no legal entitlement to stay out of tenant disputes. “A lot of landlords say they don’t want to get involved in [personal] squabbles between tenants, but they routinely get involved when a tenant complains about loud music or odors, for example,” Relman said. However, property managers need to be aware that they have a similar responsibility to get involved in tenant-on-tenant discrimination and harassment claims.

Relman spoke of a current case in which he represents a black renter who was threatened and called racial epithets by a fellow tenant in his building. Relman’s client informed his management company about the harassment, but it took no action to stop it. The offending tenant eventually moved out of the building on his own accord, but Relman’s client sued the building owner and management company over their inaction. The case is still being adjudicated in the 2nd District Court of Appeals but, Relman said, it’s already having an impact on the property management business. “This case shows that if you are indifferent or don’t take steps to stop harassment in your building—no matter who it’s coming from—you can face legal consequences,” he said.

William P. Cannon III, principal and chair of the Landlord Representation Group at law firm Offit Kurman, offered action steps property managers can take to comply with fair housing law in the case of tenant harassment. Chief among them: “Don’t do nothing” when you receive a complaint, Cannon said. Other steps include:

  • Make reasonable accommodations. Property managers must show an attempt to accommodate a tenant’s request or mitigate their concerns. Cannon suggested having tenants fill out a request form so that you can evaluate their situations and complaints. Then, approach the owner of the building you manage and inform them of their obligations for tenant requests under fair housing law. “If your client [the owner] says they’re not going to do it, you might want to get a new client,” Cannon said.
  • Treat people fairly. For example, Cannon said, use respectful language to show tenants that you care about their concerns. “Tenants want to make [their complaints] personal to you because it’s personal to them,” Cannon said.
  • Keep good records. Create a paper trail, such as tenant request forms, that demonstrate your support for your tenants who make discrimination or harassment claims. “Most cases are won, lost, or settled based on records,” Cannon said. Additionally, create work tickets and invoices for tenant maintenance requests to show you are responsive to their needs. “Some tenants may feel they are not getting the same level of service as other tenants,” Cannon added, “and good records can prove that to be false.”
  • Get advice. “When tenants have a question that may have a fair housing component, it’s OK if you don’t know the answer,” Cannon said. Contact local fair housing organizations or legal hotlines when you are unsure of how to respond. “Many times, tenants will want you to know the answer right away. It’s much better to tell them you need to seek advice than give an incorrect answer that possibly violates the law.”