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ARTICLE ID 167937

$________ Sexual harassment - Fair Housing Act violation - Landlord demands sexual favor for return of security deposit - Ongoing sexual harassment during tenancy - "Me-too" testimony of other tenants admitted - Emotional distress.

United States Dist. Ct. for No. Dist. Iowa, W. Div.

The plaintiff sued her landlord for sexual harassment and discrimination under the Fair Housing Act (Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of ________, 42 U.S.C. Sec. ________ et seq.) and the Iowa Civil Rights Acts (Iowa Code Sec. ________ et seq.) alleging that he touched her inappropriately, would not return her housing security deposit unless she engaged in some kind of sexual act with him, and that his actions caused her to feel insecure and unsafe in her home. The defendant denied the plaintiff’s allegations, contending that his conduct did not rise to a level actionable under the law and that the Eighth Circuit does not recognize a cause of action for sexual harassment causing a hostile housing situation.

The defendant was the plaintiff’s landlord. At trial, the plaintiff argued that the defendant sexually harassed her at the property he rented to her. She testified that the defendant stroked her arm when he was showing her properties, and that after she rented from him, he stroked his hand on her bare stomach and made inappropriate comments about her 14-year-old sister’s breasts. He stood unnecessarily close to her, and sometimes rubbed against her when passing by. He often rubbed his groin area in her presence, and would come to her home, 3 3 unannounced, and lounge on her sofa. He had a key to her apartment, and the plaintiff testified that she believed that the defendant had entered her bedroom when she was not home.

The plaintiff showed that male tenants were not subject to similar treatment. She introduced testimony from Pat Johnson, an investigator from the Sioux City Human Rights Commission, who testified that other women tenants had complained about similar treatment by the defendant, Dale Winter. The court allowed the plaintiff to present testimony from other women who had rented property from Winter that they, too, had been harassed by him. The court excluded testimony from one such witness on the grounds that her tenancy was too remote in time for her testimony to be probative. The plaintiff testified that when she requested that the defendant return her security deposit, he stated "my eagle eyes haven’t seen everything yet," which the plaintiff interpreted to mean that the defendant would not return the deposit unless the plaintiff gave defendant some kind of sexual favors. (In fact, the defendant did not return the plaintiff’s security deposit; it was the subject of a breach of contract claim for $________ at trial.) The plaintiff sued for emotional distress based on her own testimony and the circumstances; she did not produce medical testimony to support that claim. The parties stipulated that the plaintiff had a history of anxiety and depression before trial. The plaintiff sought damages equal to the amount of rent she paid while she suffered sexual harassment by the defendant. She also sought punitive damages on the grounds that the defendant had acted with an evil motive or knowing indifference to the plaintiff’s rights.

The defendant denied the plaintiff’s claims on the grounds that his actions were not serious enough to state a cause of action. He argued that the Eighth Circuit does not recognize a cause of action for creating a hostile housing environment due to sexual harassment. He also contended that the court incorrectly admitted the "me-too" testimony of the defendant’s former tenants, and that the court improperly excluded medical evidence about the plaintiff’s mental health, arguing that the plaintiff had put it at issue by seeking damages for emotional distress. The court ruled in the plaintiff’s favor on those arguments.

After trial, the jury awarded the plaintiff compensatory damages of $________ based on the rent she had paid during the time she was sexually harassed and discriminated against, $________ for her security deposit (under the breach of contract claim), and $________ in punitive damages. In post-trial motions, the court reduced the punitive damages award to $________, one and one- half times the compensatory damages, under the guidance of Philip Morris U.S.A. vs. Williams and B.M.W., Inc. vs. Gore. The plaintiff sought approximately $________ in attorney’s fees; the court awarded fees of $________.

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