Tips for Landlords: How to Defend Yourself against Claims of Housing Discrimination

By Robert S. Griswold, Laurence Harmon

Full compliance with fair housing laws doesn’t give landlords immunity from prosecution. Anyone can file a claim of housing discrimination against you, and you can be hauled into court over even frivolous lawsuits. The following information clarifies the legal process, so you know what to expect if someone files a housing discrimination claim against you.

Knowing what to expect: Brushing up on the legal process

When someone files a fair housing complaint with HUD, HUD notifies the alleged perpetrator of the complaint and gives that person the opportunity to respond. When HUD has the complaint and the landlord’s response (or failure to respond within the specified period), it does one of the following:

  • Conducts an investigation to determine whether there’s reasonable cause to believe that the landlord committed a Fair Housing Act violation.

  • Refers the complaint to a state or local agency (if there is one in the area and HUD determines that the agency has the same fair housing powers as HUD) and notifies both parties of the referral. HUD may take the case back if the state or local agency doesn’t begin to work on it within 30 days.

If HUD or the state or local agency decides that there’s reasonable cause to believe that the landlord committed a violation, HUD or the agency attempts to negotiate an agreement between the complainant (person who filed the complaint) and the respondent (the landlord). If a breach of the conciliation agreement occurs, HUD turns the case over to the Attorney General.

Knowing how to respond to a complaint or threat of complaint

Whether someone files a claim or threatens to do so, try your best to remain calm. Impulsive action is only likely to get you into more trouble.

If someone claims that you violated the Fair Housing Act, don’t try in any way to discourage that person from exercising his right. The Fair Housing Act prohibits you from threatening, coercing, intimidating, or interfering with anyone exercising a fair housing right or helping someone else exercise their right.

If you receive a notice from HUD or any other agency that someone has filed a housing discrimination complaint against you or one of your agents, read the complaint closely and follow the instructions in the notice to respond to the accusation. Also note any deadlines for responding, so you don’t miss important dates.

Carefully prepare your response and include as much documentation as possible to clarify and support your side of the story. You should consult an attorney who specializes in fair housing law to assist you.