Virginia landlord ordered to pay $14,625 in damages and fees for sexually harassing female tenant

A federal jury has awarded a Virginia woman $6,870 in damages and $7,755 in attorney’s fees and costs in her sexual harassment lawsuit against her landlord. The jury reached its verdict in June following a trial in the Abingdon Division of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. U.S. District Court Judge James P. Jones approved the award of attorney’s fees and costs in July, over the objections of the defendant.

The plaintiff, Amanda Rike, sued her landlord, Lewis Harris, alleging sexual discrimination in the form of sexual harassment in violation of the Fair Housing Act. According to Rike’s complaint and testimony, Harris approached her after she had been arguing with her roommate. She was upset. Harris put his arm around Rike and touched her inappropriately.

Landlord offered to exchange sex for rent

Harris then explained that he would be willing to accept sexual favors from Rike in exchange for her rent, because he knew that she had recently lost her job. Harris explained that he had other tenants who had accepted similar offers in the past. Rike was so disturbed by Harris’s conduct and afraid for her safety that she left her apartment following the incident and returned only to pack her belongings and vacate the premises. 

Rike also testified that she believed Harris had entered her apartment when she wasn’t home and rummaged through her personal belongings. Another female tenant testified on Rike’s behalf and asserted that Harris had made sexual advances toward her and other female tenants. Despite the evidence, Harris challenged the jury’s punitive damages award, insisting that he had not acted maliciously, wantonly or oppressively. Judge Jones disagreed, noting in a decision that he believed Harris’ actions were "motivated by evil intent and a callous indifference for Rike’s federally protected rights."

Harris also argued against the awarding of attorney’s fees, claiming that if the attorney had worked on a contingency basis, she would have received less money. Harris also argued that the attorney’s fees were larger than the jury’s verdict and should therefore be reduced. Judge Jones ruled against Harris on both arguments and granted Rike’s application for attorney’s fees. Her attorney, Hilary K. Johnson, submitted an affidavit showing that she had worked 51.7 hours on Rike’s case and had charged $150 per hour. Judge Jones found both figures to be reasonable. 

Judge Jones further noted in his decision to award attorneys fee’s that in civil rights cases, attorney’s fees can serve as a deterrent to prevent future acts of discrimination. Judge Jones also wrote that even though it was not a factor to be considered when determining whether to award attorney’s fees, that the jury indicated on its verdict form that it wished to award Rike her "attorney fee in full." 

Rike v. Harris
Case No. 1:00CV00164 (W.D. Va)
 
The Honorable James P. Jones, U.S. District Judge
 
Hilary K. Johnson, attorney for plaintiff
 
William P. Sheffield, attorney for defendant