Ohio woman wins $31,452 in fair housing counterclaim for sexual harassment, eviction

An Ohio Court of Common Pleas jury found landlords Tom and Jeannie Cennamo of Mount Vernon, Ohio guilty of sexual harassment and retaliation based on a fair housing counterclaim lawsuit filed by civil rights attorney, Andrew L. Margolius. The counterclaim, filed in the Knox County Court of Common Pleas on behalf of Jennifer Deem, alleged that Mr. Cennamo had engaged in a practice of "quid pro quo" sexual harassment, meaning that he had expected sexual favors from Deem in return for maintenance and continued tenancy. The counterclaim was filed on October 4, 2000, in response to the landlords’ attempt to evict Deem and her daughter.

Landlord told tenant that he would have her rental subsidy taken away if she refused to have sex

According to the Fair Housing Advocates Association (FHAA), an Ohio fair housing agency that investigated Deem’s complaint, the Cennamos violated Deem’s state and federal fair housing rights in three ways. First, the landlords created a hostile housing environment by implicitly and explicitly conditioning normal maintenance services and continued rental terms and conditions upon sexual activity and invitations. During the trial, Mr. Cennamo was alleged to have forced Deem to have sex with him by threatening her with the loss of her HUD rental subsidy if she refused to comply.

Second, the Cennamos retaliated, interfered, coerced, and intimidated Deem by conditioning sex or sexually related activity upon residency, threatening the loss of Section 8 by making false or exaggerated complaints about her to the Section 8 office, and by subjecting her to sexually related conditions in order to gain services and maintenance. The landlords also denied her the right to renew her lease after Deem complained about the sexual harassment by Mr. Cennamo.

Finally, the Cennamos placed different terms and conditions on Deem’s tenancy than those placed on other tenants because of the sexual harassment she faced. Deem asserted that the landlords subjected her to eviction and sexual harassment, thereby giving her substantially less favorable terms and conditions of housing than a man or another tenant who had not complained of sexual harassment would receive.

In July 2000, the FHAA conducted an investigation of Deem’s allegations. The results of the investigation showed that no adverse action was taken against her until after she had begun to complain about the alleged sexual harassment. The investigation also showed that Mr. Cennamo did not deny engaging in sexual activity with Deem. He merely accused her of being the "aggressor." After a three day trial ending on April 11, 2002, a Knox County jury decided in favor of Deem. It awarded her $452.00 in compensatory damages and $31,000.00 in punitive damages. In making its finding, the jury ruled that Tom and Jeannie Cennamo:

  • Had retaliated against Deem;
  • Had created a hostile housing environment for Deem; and
  • Had subjected Ms. Deem to quid pro quo sexual harassment.

FHAA: landlords’ defense was a "smokescreen"

After the trial, Vincent B. Curry, FHAA’s executive director said, "We are pleased that the jury saw through the defense’s smokescreens of trying to portray the landlords as the victims and Ms. Deem as the predator. That type of defense shows why victims of sex discrimination are often hesitant about coming forward. Our attorney did an excellent job in presenting the case and the evidence clearly. The jury looked at the evidence that we obtained and then came to the right decision. This verdict should send at least two messages. The first is that victims of sex discrimination and harassment do not have to stay victims; they can fight and win. The second is that landlords who do engage in such horrible activity will be held accountable for their actions." According to the FHAA, many victims of sexual harassment are single parent females who are victimized by landlords who have the power to house them or make them homeless. Deem took the abuse because she did not want to risk homelessness. She wanted her daughter to have a place to live.

Courts have long upheld that fair housing laws barring sex discrimination also prohibit sexual harassment. For more information, see www.fairhousing.com.