Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Ohio Supreme Court takes a stand against liability for bullying (sort of)


Fontella Harper and Beverly Kaisk were neighbors in a public housing project. Apparently, Kaisk had problems living next door to an African American family, and let them know about it, frequently and offensively. Harper complained to building management, who took no corrective action. Kaisk's lease included a provision requiring tenants to conduct themselves in a manner that "will not disturb the neighbors' peaceful enjoyment of their accommodations," and the landlord could have terminated the lease "for serious or repeated violations of material terms of the lease."

Harper sued the landlord for housing discrimination based its failure to take corrective action of the racial harassment. Yesterday, in Ohio Civil Rights Commission v. Akron Metropolitan Housing Auth., the Ohio Supreme Court held that a landlord is not liable for failing to take corrective action against a tenant whose racial harassment of another tenant created a hostile housing environment.

You might be asking, what does a housing discrimination case have to do with employment law? The plaintiff argued that a landlord should be liable for a hostile environment on the same basis that an employer can be held liable. The Court disagreed:

[I]mposing liability on an employer who knew or should have known about coworker harassment was an application of negligence liability....This liability of an employer for an employee's negligence derives from the established principles of agency law.... None of those factors apply to the liability of a landlord for the actions of a tenant. The agency principles that govern employer-employee liability have no parallel in the context of landlord-tenant disputes....

The amount of control that a landlord exercises over his tenant is not comparable to that which an employer exercises over his employee. As the appellants observe, a landlord does enjoy a measure of control through his ability to evict tenants. In the present case, the lease signed by Kaisk gives the AMHA authority to evict a tenant who disturbs other tenants' "peaceful enjoyment of their accommodations." The power of eviction alone, however, is insufficient to hold a landlord liable for his tenant's tortious actions against another tenant.... We therefore reject the argument that our precedent in the employment context applies to the cause of action at issue here.

It's not earth-shattering news that agency principles hold employers liable for discriminatory (e.g., sexual, racial, etc.) harassment of one co-worker by another. This case, however, also speaks to the Court's unwillingness to extend harassment liability beyond the current parameters of the law. The Court could have reasoned a duty to correct from the power to evict, and from that duty fashioned a remedy for the harassed tenant. The Court, though, expressly rejected that argument.

For those who hold out hope that Ohio courts might recognize a general cause of action for workplace bullying, this opinion is a strong signal that our state's highest court would reject such an attempt.

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