The issue of sexual harassment has inevitably trickled down to the rental housing industry
As heavy consumers of Bay Area housing news, we came across this article chronicling the plight of Cindy Chau, a tenant who thought she found a gem in a $1,200 a month apartment in pricey San Francisco. The bargain came with a caveat not included in the lease – lewd text messages and sexual entreaties. However disturbed we were by this occurrence at Bornstein Law, we were encouraged that the little-spoken about issue of sexual harassment within rental units was brought to light.
It's difficult to turn a hashtag campaign into long-lasting change, but in short order, the #MeToo movement has upended the landscape of a number of industries, exposing sexual harassment where it has reared its ugly head. Whether in the hallowed halls of the Capitol, California’s technology sector, the good ole’ boy network of the entertainment industry, and just about every other facet of society, this issue has been in the forefront. It was only a matter of time that this endemic problem trickled its way down to the rental housing industry.
More women are breaking the silence, making this no longer a taboo subject – it’s a topic being discussed at nine o’clock in the morning. Watch this edition of the TODAY show.
As a guest on the TODAY show, Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary – a man no stranger to real estate and running businesses – offers some tutelage by saying that an enforceable policy of ‘zero tolerance’ must be set from the top, a message that must be heeded by landlords and property management companies, lest they face costly litigation or become a radioactive waste business.
Landlords can be held liable for the harassing behavior of their managers and other agents, making it vital to set and enforce policies from the top down.
Many people who infamously made headlines have seemed to become intoxicated with power, and the heavy-handed exertion of influence over other people unfortunately extends to a small group of Bay Area housing providers. In our pricey housing market, renters dealing with harassment are in a bind. In the words of one attorney cited in the East Bay Times article, “tenants basically are captive because they can’t afford to move out.”
We noted in an earlier article on permissible reasons for a landlord to enter an occupied residence that the tenant’s right to privacy is sacrosanct, and that unknowing owners may be held liable for the actions of their property managers or agents. Cindy Chau’s case serves as an exclamation point. The understandably aggrieved tenant (shown below) is suing not only her property manager Gregg Molyneaux, but also Mr. Molyneaux’s parents, who are her landlords, on the grounds of harassment and wrongful evictions.
One of the greatest takeaways at Bornstein Law, then, is that it is imperative for any rental business to instill a culture of zero tolerance, and an awareness of laws surrounding harassment and discrimination. With a high attrition rate, property management companies are especially susceptible to liability by the actions of employees that are not versed in basic tenets of law. Aside from harassment and discrimination, we add rent control regulations to the list of must-know subjects for property management employees to study.
It should be common sense, good business and human decency for the rental property industry to avoid crossing a red line, but if this is not reason enough, the romantic fascination of tenants or rental applicants can be quickly soured by the Unruh Civil Rights Act or Fair Employment Act and numerous cases where the courts have frowned upon the sexually-based transgressions of landlords with hefty financial consequences. Brown v. Smith and DiCenso v. Cisneros, are just a couple cases that roll off our tongues.
Most rental businesses are small shops, and they are well advised to consult the laws surrounding harassment. Harassment training isn’t optional for larger groups with more than 50 or more employees – under AB 1825, it is mandated.
In parting thoughts, we want to emphasize that in today’s scandal-laden and litigious era, any perceived acts of impropriety may be put under a microscope, with potentially severe repercussions to landlords and property managers. The writing is on the wall.
To understand your legal obligations and avoid or resolve problematic claims of harassment and cauterize risk, contact the landlord lawyers of Bornstein Law.
Daniel is the founding attorney of Bornstein Law, the San Francisco Bay Area's foremost authority on managing landlord-tenant relationships, property management issues, and complex real estate litigation. Having protected the rights of property owners for over 23 years, he is also renowned for his educational workshops, his speaking engagements with numerous organizations, and as an expert witness. Contact his office today.