Landlord Sexual Harassment

Under California law, a tenant can recover against a landlord for sexual harassment under the Fair Employment and Housing Act or the Unruh Civil Rights Act.  Brown v. Smith, 55 Cal. App. 4th 767 (1997) and Civil Code § 51 et seq.

Unruh Civil Rights Act

To prove a claim for sexual harassment under the Unruh Civil Rights Act, a tenant must show that (1) the landlord made “sexual advances, solicitations, sexual requests, demands for sexual compliance by the plaintiff, or engaged in other verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual nature or of a hostile nature based on gender; (2) the landlord’s conduct was unwelcome and pervasive or severe”; (3) the tenant cannot easily terminate the relationship; and (4) the tenant suffered or will suffer economic loss or disadvantage or personal injury, including, but not limited to, emotional distress.  Cal. Civil Code § 51.9.  A tenant who suffers sexual harassment is entitled to punitive damages, actual damages, emotional distress damages, and attorney fees.  Cal. Civil Code § 52.

Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA)

To prove a claim for landlord sexual harassment under FEHA, a tenant must show a “hostile” or “abusive” relationship.  Courts will look at the totality of the circumstances, including: (1) frequency of the discriminatory conduct; (2) its severity; (3) whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and (4) whether it unreasonably interferes with a tenant’s enjoyment of housing.  Brown v. Smith, 55 Cal. App. 4th 767 (1997).  The court will also consider the nature of the unwelcome sexual acts, for instance physical touching is more offensive than verbal abuse.  Id. The total number of days of the offensive conduct and the context are also important factors.  Id. Acts need to be more than occasional, isolated, sporadic, or trivial.  Id.  It must be a concerted pattern of harassment of a repeated, routine or a generalized nature.  Id.

Case Examples

A jury awarded $110,000 in general damages, $500 for loss of consortium, $68,000 in punitive damages, and $50,000 in attorney fees against landlord who repeatedly made inappropriate advances to tenant.  The landlord offered to forgo a rent increase in exchange for sexual favors.  Brown v. Smith, 55 Cal. App. 4th 767 (1997).

Tenant could not sustain cause of action against landlord who caressed tenant’s back and arm when tenant went to pay rent.  Landlord told tenant that she could take care of the rent in “other ways.”  When tenant refused, the landlord began to shout profanities at the tenant.  The court reasoned that the harassment must be pervasive rather than an isolated incident.  DiCenso v. Cisneros, 96 F.3d 1004 (1996).