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Monday, February 26, 2018

DOJ Launches Sexual Harassment in Housing Initiative

The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice announced a new initiative that brings local law enforcement, legal service providers, and DOJ officials together in order to encourage victims to report instances of sexual harassment, increase awareness, assist in obtaining necessary resources for relief, and ultimately, continue the vigorous enforcement of the Fair Housing Act’s ban on sexual harassment.

This initiative stemmed from four cases in 2017, wherein DOJ recovered over $1 million in damages for claims of sexual harassment and violations of the Fair Housing Act. Two of those cases are U.S. v. Kansas City, Kansas Housing Authority and U.S. v. Tjoelker.

On September 29, 2017, DOJ executed a settlement agreement resolving a case against Kansas City Kansas Housing Authority (KCKHA). The Complaint alleged KCKHA employees engaged in a pattern or practice of sexually harassing female housing applicants and residents. One defendant even admitted in sworn deposition testimony that he exposed himself to multiple females. In the agreement, the fourteen aggrieved females were awarded $360,000 in monetary damages. In addition, KCKHA was ordered to implement a written policy against sexual harassment, including a formal complaint procedure to be approved by DOJ and to pay a $5,000 civil penalty to the United States.

On October 3, 2017, DOJ also executed a settlement agreement against Frank Tjoelker, owner and/or manager of rental dwellings in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Complaint also alleged that he engaged in a pattern or practice of sexually harassing actual and prospective female tenants. Allegations include unwelcome sexual comments and advances, unwanted groping or touching, offers for housing benefits in exchange for sexual favors, and taking or threats of taking adverse housing actions for those who object to such harassment or refuse to grant sexual favors. Under the settlement agreement, Tjoelker was ordered to pay $140,000 to compensate the ten victims and a $10,000 civil penalty to the United States.

Although DOJ only executed settlement agreements to obtain resolutions on the above-mentioned cases and such agreements are binding only among the parties involved, it is likely that DOJ will apply similar penalties in future settlement agreements or decisions on violations of the Fair Housing Act’s sexual harassment ban. See U.S. v. Bailey, U.S. v. Barnason, and U.S. v. Bathrick.

In this regard, as evidence of good faith compliance with the Fair Housing Act, real estate professionals are encouraged to establish written policies against sexual harassment, to train their employees and agents to identify and refrain from engaging in acts of sexual harassment, and to establish procedures for handling complaints.