Taking legal action against a perpetrator can be a scary and complicated process. If you or someone you know has been the target of sexual misconduct or inappropriate statements by a landlord, or requests for sexual acts in lieu of rent, call Tobener Ravenscroft LLP to speak to a tenant rights attorney at 415-504-2165.


Sex Discrimination

Sexual harassment can be classified as a form or sex discrimination.  Sexual Harassment in itself is an abuse of power that is not always driven by a landlord’s sexual desire for a tenant.  Instead, sexual harassment can be the result of discrimination towards a tenant on the basis of their sex.  For example, a male landlord’s hate or aggression towards a female tenant can manifest through statements like, “Why don’t you have a husband to run your household?” or “You need a man to stay with you in this unit!” or “I will only accept rent from your partner!”

Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment

Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when a landlord requires a tenant to engage in unwanted sexual conduct as a condition to the tenant obtaining or maintaining their housing.  Quid pro quo harassment can arise when a landlord demands sexual favors from a tenant in exchange for not raising the rent, threatens to evict the tenant if they do not have sex with the landlord, or says they will only make repairs to the unit in exchange for naked photos of the tenant.  Often, a landlord sexually harassing a tenant will not make such overt demands.  Instead, a landlord may make statements that imply a sex-for-rent agreement, such as, “If you do me some personal favors, I will forgive your rent.” 

Hostile Environment Sexual Harassment

Hostile environment sexual harassment is when a landlord engages in sexual behavior that is severe and pervasive enough that it results in a hostile, intimidating, offensive, or undesirable environment.  Unlike quid pro quo harassment, the landlord does not need to condition a tenant’s housing on sexual conduct, but rather, the tenant’s housing is negatively impacted by the landlord’s unwanted sexual behavior.  For example, a hostile housing environment can arise when the landlord repeatedly asks a tenant about their sex life, makes comments about the tenant’s body, texts or emails the tenant pictures of their private body parts, or touches the tenant inappropriately.

California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”)

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) Government Code section 12900 et seq., prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of, among other things, sex/gender.  Cal. Gov’t Code § 12955(a).  Although FEHA forbids sex discrimination in housing, it does not enumerate sexual harassment by a landlord as a form of actionable sex discrimination under FEHA.  Cal. Gov’t Code § 12927; Brown v. Superior Court, 55 Cal. App. 4th 767, 774 (1997).

After the creation of FEHA, the California state legislature directed that the FEHA be construed liberally to accomplish its purpose.  The purpose of FEHA is to prohibit retaliation, discrimination, and harassment against a person in all terms and conditions of their employment or housing based on a list of protected categories, including sex.  In 1993, the court in Brown v. Smith took advantage of the legislature’s direction and their statutory intent behind FEHA.  The court determined that it is consistent with the purpose of FEHA to read the statute as baring sexual harassment because it is a type of sex discrimination.  55 Cal. App. 4th at 774; see also Honce v. Vigil, 1 F.3d 1085, 1089 (10th Cir. 1993).  As a result, sexual harassment became actionable under FEHA.

The legal principals and resources in employment cases can be applied to the housing context.  Beliveau v. Caras, 873 F. Supp. 1393, 1397 (C.D. Cal. 1995). 

Elements of a Claim for Landlord-Tenant Sex Discrimination

  1. The tenant was subjected to unwelcome sexual harassment, defined as either unwelcome sexual advances or other unwelcome verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature;
  2. The offensive act would not have happened but for the tenant’s gender, so that gender was a substantial factor in the claimed harassment;
  3. The harassment complained of was sufficiently severe or pervasive so as to alter or interfere unreasonably with the conditions of the housing arrangement;
  4. The conduct continued after the tenant requested that it stop;
  5. The offensive conduct arose out of or was closely related to the landlord-tenant relationship;
  6. The tenant suffered from some injury, damage, or harm caused by the sexual harassment.

Elements of a Claim for Landlord-Tenant Hostile Housing Environment

  1. The tenant had a contractual relationship with the landlord;
  2. The tenant was subject to harassing conduct because he/she was a part of a protected class (e.g. a woman);
  3. The harassing conduct was severe or pervasive;
  4. A reasonable person in the tenant’s circumstances would have considered the housing environment to be hostile, intimidating, offensive, oppressive, or abusive;
  5. The landlord engaged in the conduct or the landlord’s agents knew or should have known of the conduct and failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action;
  6. The tenant was harmed;
  7. The conduct was a substantial factor in causing the tenant’s harm.

Elements of a Claim for Landlord-Tenant Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment

  1. The tenant applied for housing or was in a contractual relationship with the landlord;
  2. The landlord made unwanted sexual advances to the tenant or engaged in other unwanted verbal or physical conduct;
  3. The terms of the tenancy, amenities, or hosing conditions were made contingent, by words or conduct, on the tenant’s acceptance of the landlord’s sexual advances or conduct;
  4. At the time of the landlord’s conduct, the landlord was an owner or agent of the owner;
  5. The tenant was harmed; and
  6. The landlord’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing the harm.

Statute of Limitations and Damages for Sexual Harassment in Violation of FEHA

In the housing context, there is a two-year statute of limitations to bring a private action for sex discrimination or sexual harassment in violation of FEHA against a landlord or an agent or a landlord.  A tenant may be awarded actual damages, punitive damages, emotional discuss, and attorney fees.

The Unruh Civil Rights Act

The Unruh Civil Rights Act prohibits a housing provider from denying tenants their full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, and/or services because of his/her sex.  Cal. Civ. Code § 51.   Much like FEHA, sexual harassment by a landlord is not expressly enumerated as a form of actionable sex discrimination under the Unruh Civil Rights Act.  Cal. Civ. Code § 51.   To remedy this issue, the California state legislature created a separate cause of action under Civil Code section 51.9 for sexual harassment.  Under this state statute, an individual may sue another for sexual harassment in a business, service, or professional relationship, such as the landlord-tenant relationship.  Cal. Civ. Code § 51.9.   The following factors must be met in order to bring a legal claim against a landlord of their agent under this statute:

Elements of a Claim for Sexual Harassment in a Defined Landlord-Tenant Relationship

  1. The tenant has a business, service, or professional relationship with the landlord;
  2. The landlord/or agent of the landlord made sexual advances, solicitations, or sexual requests/demands for sexual compliance to the tenant, or the landlord engaged in verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual or hostile nature based on the tenant’s gender;
  3. The landlord’s behavior was unwelcome and also pervasive and severe; and
  4. The tenant has suffered or will suffer economic loss, injury, or a violation of their constitutional or statutory right as a result of the landlord’s conduct.

Statute of Limitations and Damages for a Landlord-Tenant Sexual Harassment Claim Under Unruh

Under Civil Code section 51.9, a tenant has two years to bring a private claim of sexual harassment against their landlord or the landlord’s agent for the discriminatory or harassing conduct.  A tenant may be awarded actual damages, treble damages, punitive damages, emotional discuss, and attorney fees.

The Ralph Act

Sexual harassment and sex discrimination may manifest into violence.  In such instances, Civil Code section 51.7 (“Ralph Act”) offers protections for tenants.  Under the Ralph Act, tenants are protected from any violence or intimidation by threat of violence motivated by sex, gender, or other similar characteristic or trait.  Cal. Civ. Code §51.7. 

Elements of a Claim for Landlord Violent Sexual Harassment Under the Ralph Act

  1. The landlord committed a violent act against a tenant or his/her property;
  2. A substantial motivating reason for landlord’s conduct was their perception of the tenant’s sex;
  3. The tenant was harmed; and
  4. The landlord’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing the tenant’s harm.

Statute of Limitations and Damages for a Claim of Violent Sexual Harassment Under the Ralph Act

Under Civil Code section 51.7, a tenant has three years to bring a private claim against their landlord or the landlord’s agent.   A tenant may be awarded actual damages, punitive damages, emotional discuss, and attorney fees.   A landlord may also face a civil penalty of $25,000, which is awarded to the tenant.