Sexual Harassment


Under a newly minted law, California businesses – including those in the rental housing industry – must conduct training that educates employees about sexual harassment and slays the beast.

The viral hashtag campaign #MeToo has exposed sexual harassment and sexual assault wherever it has reared its ugly head and has created a seismic shift in the workplace culture. After rocking every other facet of society, we noted in an earlier article that it was only a matter of time before inappropriate behavior in the rental housing industry was exposed.

In one way, the rental housing industry is particularly susceptible to abusive behavior, because a common theme we have observed with the spate of fallen high-profile figures is that they often appeared to be intoxicated by power and were in a position to influence the careers of their victims, many of whom acquiesced to the harassment or assaults for fear that reporting it would lead to their detriment.

With affordable housing such a rare commodity in the Bay Area, landlords and their agents similarily exert an inordinate amount of influence on one of life’s most basic needs – shelter. Unsavory housing providers can easily take advantage of this inherent power by demanding sexual acts in order to rent or continue living in a unit or make it difficult to feel comfortable in their home. At least one apartment dweller thought she found a gem in a $1,200 apartment in pricey San Francisco, only to find it came with lewd text messages and sexual entreaties. 

While this egregious case made the headlines, the phenomena is likely widespread, because tenants often don’t report it – many are captive because they can’t afford to move out.

New law expands training

Until now, only businesses with 50 or more employees were required to provide sexual harassment prevention training, but SB 1343 will mandate training to businesses with five or more employees, including temporary and seasonal workers. The author of the bill, Senator Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, says this will fill a gaping void.

Millions of California’s most vulnerable workers are not being informed of their rights and protections nor trained on how to detect work-inappropriate behaviors and how to report those behaviors… In order for an adequate culture shift to take place around this issue, all employees need to feel confident that they are adequately protected by their employers’ policies and procedures when it comes to safeguarding against sexual harassment.

Immediate action is in order

The law prescribes that affected employees must undergo expanded training by January 1, 2020. If the requisite training occurs in 2019 it need not be repeated before this deadline. The training mandates at least two hours of sexual harassment prevention training for all supervisory employees and at a minimum, one hour of sexual harassment training to employees in non-supervisory roles. Once an employee is appointed to his or her position, training must be conducted within six months and then every two years. 

Bornstein Law has always advised clients not to kick the can down the road, and this is no exception. The rental housing industry should not get a false sense of comfort because the law goes into effect far-flung in the future. Given the pervasiveness of the problem and the consequences of sexual harassment, we urge that a zero-tolerance policy is set today and is not viewed as a perfunctory compliance issue later on. 

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.

Related: Tenant lawsuits are proliferating throughout the Bay Area…

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.