There is sufficient evidence to support a hostile housing environment claim if a reasonable jury can find a plaintiff proved by a preponderance of the evidence that a defendant subjected her to unwelcome sexual harassment, and the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive so as to interfere with or deprive the plaintiff of her right to use or enjoy her home. Applied to the housing context, a claim of hostile housing environment caused by sexual harassment is actionable when the offensive behavior unreasonably interferes with use and enjoyment of the premises. The harassment must be sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the housing arrangement.
A tenant sued her landlord for hostile housing environment created by sexual harassment under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Iowa Civil Rights Act. A jury awarded the tenant $ 13,685 in compensatory damages and $ 250,000 in punitive damages. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa reduced the punitive damages award to $ 20,527.50 and awarded $ 20,000 in attorney fees and $ 1,587.88 in costs. The parties cross-appealed.
Was the claim for hostile housing environment actionable?
The Court found that the tenant was entitled to damages. It held that the tenant presented sufficient evidence of numerous unwanted interactions of a sexual nature that interfered with her use and enjoyment of her home. She testified that the landlord subjected her to unwanted touching on two occasions, made sexually suggestive comments, rubbed his genitals in front of her, placed several middle of the night phone calls to her home, made repeated unannounced visits, and on one occasion while he lay on her couch, had to be told to leave her home at least three times before he complied. There was more than sufficient evidence of coercion, intimidation, and interference with the tenant's enjoyment of her housing rights, other than retaliation, to support the jury's verdict. The landlord had not shown there was plain error in either the form or content of the jury instructions and verdict form. The district court properly performed its gatekeeping function and did not abuse its discretion in admitting the evidence of three former tenants who also claimed they were sexually harassed by the landlord.