Why Maintenance Needs Adequate Fair Housing and Discrimination Training

Who is the biggest potential fair housing liability on your property?  Because maintenance staff is on the property every day and easily accessible, maintenance has a lot, if not the most, day-to-day interaction with residents.  Because residents get to know maintenance staff, residents also tend to ask maintenance lots of questions, including a lot of fair housing related questions.  Given maintenance’s constant interaction with both residents and co-workers, the potential for a harassment or sexual harassment claim against maintenance staff is always possible.  For these reasons, many argue that maintenance staff may be the biggest potential fair housing and discrimination liability on your property.  To address this potential liability, you should adopt appropriate policies and make sure that your maintenance team is adequately trained to deal with fair housing, harassment, and discrimination related issues.

Adequately training maintenance personnel is the first step to lowering your exposure.  Training by itself does not win discrimination charges.  However, training when coupled with other evidence can significantly bolster the defense, and prevent punitive damage claims.  Specifically, in the typical “he said, she said” type of case, we have successfully argued to the Colorado Civil Rights Division that the alleged discrimination could not have happened because not only is it against company policy, but all onsite team members, including maintenance, regularly receive training to not commit the alleged act of discrimination.  In other words, given our client’s policy and continuing training, it is much more likely that the alleged act of discrimination never occurred.

Forty percent of all fair housing claims are based on disability.  A vast number of these claims are based on a failure to accommodate disabled residents.  Based on our experience many maintenance employees do not understand their obligation to respond to a resident’s request for a reasonable accommodation.  All maintenance staff are agents for the property, the management company, and the owner.  When a resident makes a request to maintenance, it is the same as the resident making the request to the vice president of the company.  Knowledge of any agent (e.g. maintenance technician) is knowledge to the company.  Similarly, a statement of any agent is a statement made by the company.

Disabled residents are entitled to make and receive reasonable accommodations under fair housing laws.  Because a resident is most familiar and comfortable with a maintenance technician, the resident might make a verbal request for a reasonable accommodation directly to a maintenance tech.  A resident’s verbal request to a maintenance tech for a reasonable accommodation can potentially be a disaster for a host of reasons.  First, if maintenance has not been properly trained, maintenance will either tell the resident to put in a maintenance request, or will just ignore the request and assume that the resident will put in a maintenance request through normal channels.  Second, given the nature of some reasonable accommodation requests, a maintenance tech could easily conclude that the resident’s request is unreasonable and immediately deny the resident’s request.

If the resident is entitled to the accommodation, and the maintenance tech told the resident “no”, the company has just committed housing discrimination.  If the maintenance tech tells the resident that he will look into it, but never does, the company just committed housing discrimination.  If the maintenance tech tells the resident, “this isn’t my job, you will need to make that request in writing to the manager or you need to make that request at the office”, and the resident never does, the company is exposed to a housing discrimination claim.

While it sounds far-fetched, residents have filed discrimination complaints for failure to accommodate based on verbal requests made to maintenance staff.  In one case, the resident requested that her handicapped parking space be relocated, and a curb cut be created by the new space.  The maintenance tech wrongfully denied this verbal request and never informed his manager.  The maintenance tech denied the request because the resident already had a handicapped space located close to a curb cut.  The maintenance tech wrongfully concluded that the resident was asking for essentially the same thing the resident already had.

For the reasons discussed, your maintenance staff should be trained on how to identify and handle reasonable accommodation and modification requests.  At a bare minimum, they should know the following about fair housing disability law.  Disabled residents are entitled to make requests for reasonable accommodations and modifications.  Residents with non-obvious disabilities can make and are entitled to receive accommodations/modifications.  Unusual or significant resident requests can be reasonable accommodation or modification requests.  A resident’s request doesn’t have to take any particular form, and doesn’t always have to be supported by a doctor’s note.  Maintenance staff should always immediately report all verbal requests to the onsite manager.  Maintenance staff should never deny any request on their own.

How your community delivers maintenance services can and has been the grounds for fair housing discrimination complaints.  This has become less of a problem for professionally managed communities that use sophisticated property management software.  Computer records can generate detailed historical maintenance records that show maintenance was timely, and equally provided to all residents.  Of course, your computer maintenance records will only protect you if your maintenance team is consistently and accurately logging their activities into the computer.
However, in our defense of maintenance cases, we’ve discovered a recurring shortcoming regarding how problem maintenance requests are being logged into systems.  Our review of thousands of maintenance records consistently shows that the reason for delays in routine jobs is not being consistently and properly documented. Maintenance may not be able to timely perform a maintenance job for a host of reasons, e.g. lack of staff, unavailability of material or parts, shipping delays, inspection delays, third party vendor delays, or weather related issues.  When delays on routine jobs are not documented, you won’t be able to explain them three years after the fact.  If all of the delayed responses are for maintenance requests made by the resident alleging discrimination, the unexplained delays are circumstantial evidence of discrimination.

You should also train your maintenance staff about the disclosure of pricing and availability.  Again, because maintenance is highly accessible, they will get asked questions about pricing and availability.  However, your maintenance staff may not always be familiar with the most up to date information on pricing, availability, or other key leasing-related information.  While your maintenance team wants to be helpful, they should not be guessing or assuming about availability, pricing, or other leasing-related information.  The wrong answers provided to the wrong applicants can too easily lead to a fair housing complaint.  You should adopt clear policies on what information maintenance is allowed to disclose, and maintenance should be instructed to refer all other inquiries to qualified leasing agents, or other onsite management staff.

Two other potential areas of liability include maintenance staff fraternization with residents, and resident-on-resident discrimination.  Because maintenance fraternization with residents is fraught with fair housing and other land mines, you should prohibit maintenance from fraternizing with residents.  If you have sound reasons for not totally prohibiting such fraternization, you should at least have clear and detailed policies setting forth under what circumstances fraternization is allowed.  Since the community is also potentially liable for resident-on-resident fair housing discrimination, maintenance should be trained to identify and report any discrimination by one resident against another.

Harassment is another important area that concerns maintenance staff. Harassment pertains to maintenance staff in two important areas: employment (interacting with coworkers) and fair housing (interacting with residents). When it comes to harassment, most of us think of sexual harassment.  However, harassment is broader than sexual harassment.  Harassment also involves unwelcome comments or conduct that someone finds offensive and harmful.  If not addressed and corrected, harassment is a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Like all employers, management companies have an obligation to ensure that the workplace is free from any harassment, including sexual harassment, as well as any form of illegal discrimination that creates a hostile work environment.  When a particular employee, or employees feel harassed because of unwelcome comments or conduct initiated by another employee, the employee is working in a hostile work environment.  In the workplace, harassment means being offended, or in worst cases, it means the offending conduct is resulting in psychological or physical harm.  Managers must train their staff on all forms of harassment in the workplace, whether it is related to gender, race, national origin, religion, etc., and adopt a policy on responding to complaints about harassment.

Maintenance staff are often men who interact on a daily basis with female employees who are housekeepers, leasing agents, and managers.  It is critical for management to have a set policy about what is unacceptable conduct, and to make sure this policy is adequately communicated to all employees.  Your policy should address sexual jokes, innuendo, inappropriate touching, viewing inappropriate material, and using profanity on the job.  What is comfortable and appropriate touching for one employee may be unwelcome and unwanted touching for another.  Sometimes, what is comfortable between two employees may develop into something that is not comfortable for one of the employees.  As a result, a policy that prohibits certain conduct is critical.

  Management must also discourage racial jokes, remarks, or any conduct that creates a hostile work environment because of another’s protected class.  Most companies have a diverse group of employees and it is important to foster an atmosphere of respect.  To do this, companies must create a zero-tolerance policy that forbids any type of joking or other comments concerning, race, national origin, disabilities, etc.  Adequate training should be provided to all employees making them aware of what constitutes harassment and how to avoid it.

Your policies and training should address how and to whom employees should report sexual and other forms of harassment.  Employees must know that they have access to managers at the property and even managers who do not work at the property, such as regional managers.  Once an employee reports sexual or other work environment harassment, management must take immediate action to investigate the allegations, and to determine the appropriate response.  Investigations should be thorough and include interviews of employees other than just the employee making the complaint.  In severe cases it may be necessary to hire an independent person to conduct the investigation.  After conducting an investigation, the appropriate response may range from separating two employees to termination of the employee accused of the misconduct.  Failure to take action exposes employers to major liability under the federal employment civil rights statutes.  Employees who feel they have been discriminated against can bring administrative actions and lawsuits.

The biggest mistake most employers make is not responding to an allegation.  If a court later finds that the employee was in a hostile environment, you have compounded the problem by leaving the harassed employee in the hostile work environment.  Responding to an allegation of hostile work environment can be complicated.  Management should seek assistance from legal counsel in responding.  At all stages, your documentation of the allegation and the response is critical.  A policy of prompt response and investigation protects the company from legal exposure and protects the company’s most valuable asset, its employees.  You should never punish an employee for making a harassment complaint.  Punishing a complaining employee only creates further liability.  Employees must know that they can make a complaint without fear of retaliation.

Under fair housing laws, the concept of a hostile living environment is similar to a hostile work environment, and gives rise to costly lawsuits against management companies and owners. Courts have broadened the definition of gender discrimination under the Fair Housing Act to include sexual harassment.  Likewise, other forms of harassment have been held to create hostile living environments.  Because the Fair Housing Act provides for damages and punishment to those who violate the law, your knowledge of and failure to correct a hostile living environment situation based on harassment in the housing context can be costly.

Maintenance staffers are often placed in close contact with residents in their units.  Maintenance staff needs to be trained to conduct themselves professionally around all residents at all times.  Costly lawsuits can and have resulted when maintenance employees inappropriately touch or fondle a resident.  These types of lawsuits frequently result when the resident initiated the flirtatious or sexual advance.  Similarly, inappropriate comments can lead to significant legal trouble.  Maintenance staff must not make any inappropriate comments that residents would find offensive.  As with employment, if a resident complains, management must investigate promptly and take appropriate action.  Maintenance staff often get to know certain residents well.  Your policy should emphasize that in these instances it is probably even more important to never let down their professional demeanor, in order to avoid problems.

What happens when a maintenance technician is the victim of harassment?  Maintenance employees are frequently the victims of harassment, including inappropriate sexual advances.  Multifamily living involves people from all walks of life.  Maintenance staff is required to enter the apartments of total strangers.  Many maintenance workers have shared their stories of being placed in uncomfortable situations.  These stories range from walking in on scantly dressed residents, residents viewing hardcore pornography, propositions for sex, to children left home alone.

To protect your maintenance staff, you should enact appropriate policies.  Maintenance staff should only enter units where there is a written work order, unless there is an emergency. Even with a written work order, maintenance should not enter a unit where a child is home alone, unless there is an emergency.  Even in emergencies, if possible, another employee should be present as a witness.  If a maintenance employee is uncomfortable with the behavior of the resident or guest, or if a resident is acting inappropriately, your policy should allow and direct the maintenance employee to immediately leave the unit.  Allowing or requiring your maintenance technician to enter the unit of a scantly clad resident is risking a lawsuit, and your maintenance staff’s professional life.  Your policy should also require your maintenance employee to immediately report any incident in writing, and for the onsite management team to carefully document the situation as appropriate.

A growing area of employment law involves negligent hiring and supervision.  For this reason, you should run appropriate background checks on all staff, and especially maintenance employees.  Management companies have defended lawsuits based on allegations that a maintenance professional molested them and that the maintenance employee had a record of similar prior conduct.  Failing to properly supervise staff is just as risky.  If a maintenance employee is violating company policy it is critical to determine the appropriate discipline.  If warranted by the circumstances, you should not fear terminating a maintenance staff member.  If you fail to correct the behavior through discipline or termination, you have exposed the company to significant liability if the conduct happens again.

Maintenance staffers are important agents of the management company and should never be overlooked in the training provided to employees.  Such training reduces problems and helps maintenance professionals know they are part of the team that makes any property a success.

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