Owner, Manager Can Be Liable for Employee's Discriminatory Actions
Facts: In a fair housing enforcement action, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the companies that owned and managed the Central Park Towers Apartments in Kansas City, Kansas, under Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The suit also individually named a woman who worked for the companies as the property manager. The Justice Department alleged that while she was manager of Central Park Towers she openly displayed and distributed on the premises racially hostile materials and symbols such as hangman's nooses, used racial epithets, made derogatory remarks about African-American residents, and treated white residents more favorably than African-American residents in the terms and conditions of their residency. The suit also alleged that the site manager fired an employee for cooperating with a HUD fair housing investigation at the site. According to the suit, these actions amounted to an unlawful pattern or practice of housing discrimination and represented the companies' standard operating procedure.
The companies asked the court to dismiss the charges against them, asserting that the government could not show that the conduct of one employee at just one of the 1,500 properties in its portfolio represented a discriminatory pattern or a standard operating procedure. In addition, the companies claimed that they should not be held liable for the employee's actions since they did not authorize them.
Decision: The United States District Court for the District of Kansas rejected the companies' arguments and allowed the case to continue.
Reasoning: The court ruled that as long as the employee acted as the companies' official agent or representative, her actions as manager could make the property's owner and its management company “vicariously liable” for the employee's allegedly discriminatory actions, even if they did not directly sanction her discriminatory conduct.
- United States v. Sturdevant, May 2009
EDITOR'S NOTE: The 1968 Civil Rights Act makes certain retaliatory or threatening behavior illegal: “It shall be unlawful to coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with any person in the exercise or enjoyment of, or on account of his having exercised or enjoyed, or on account of his having aided or encouraged any other person in the exercise or enjoyment of, any right granted or protected by section 3603, 3604, 3605, or 3606 of this title” [42 U.S.C. §3617].