Ct. Landlord pays $15,000 for failure to take corrective actions

(Shelton, Conn., July 11, 2007) – A landlord has an obligation to get involved when his tenant is being harassed by another tenant- especially if that tenant is victimized by incidents of a racial nature.  When landlords Mr. and Mrs. Rutkauskas of Shelton, CT, however, decided the best way to handle the matter was to take a “hands off approach”, it turned out to be a serious mistake in judgment that cost them $15,000.

According to Kimberly Lawton (an African-American) in her  sworn affidavit filed with the Connecticut Commission On Human Rights and Opportunities, she and her family were repeatedly harassed from the first day they moved in by her neighbor, Chad Jansen, with the spewing of racial epithets and the banging on walls which eventually took its toll and forced them to move elsewhere.  Although she complained to their landlord about these incidents, Ms. Lawton claimed nothing was done to alleviate the situation.

Ms. Lawton’s  complaint stated that “there were several incidents of racial harassment involving Chad Jansen --- which had a particularly devastating and emotional effect on me”.  Typical was one instance when she received a call at work from her father who was babysitting her four kids who told her that Jansen was banging on the walls calling her kids “niggers” and  yelling, “shut the f—k up!” She said her father refused to baby-sit any more after that. Another time occurred when her sister was babysitting for her.  After putting the children to bed, her sister went next door to ask Jansen to turn down the radio.  “After returning to the apartment, Paula and my kids then heard Chad Jansen banging on the walls yelling, ‘Nigger , go back to where you came from!”  A third incident recalled by Ms. Lawton involves the time she had a friend come to visit her and Jansen objected to where she parked.  Specifically he was quoted as saying, “You f--king nigger, get out of here!”

Ms. Lawton’s sworn statement reads, “After almost four years of my family members, my company, my children and myself  being subjected to constant and overt racial harassment from Chad Jansen in the form of physical intimidation and derogatory racial epithets, ---- for the sake of the health and well- being of myself and my children, I felt it necessary to give up an apartment which I really loved and move to a less desirable unit for our own protection.”  She also characterized the failure of her landlord- William and Kathleen Rutkauskas for failing to take corrective measures to resolve the problems she was having (with Jansen) to be a discriminatory act.

During the investigation done by the Connecticut Commission, it was revealed that Mr. and Mrs. Rutkauskas appeared sympathetic to Ms. Lawton’s plight but stopped short of taking any actions to intercede in the matter.  They made suggestions that she call the police (which she did numerous times) and also the NAACP but specifically was told that they don’t want to ‘get in the middle’ or ‘take sides’.  Instead, they welcomed her decision to move elsewhere.  The Commission made a “Cause Finding” in the case in February, 2006.

Recently, Ms. Lawton was able to reach a settlement with her former landlords just prior to the start of a formal administrative hearing.  In addition to the monetary settlement, the Rutkauskases agreed to include fair housing notices in all rental applications and stated that they recognize their obligation to provide a non-discriminatory housing environment. The stipulated agreement makes it clear, however, that respondents are not admitting to any violation of state or federal law.  Attorney Alan Rosner of Bridgeport represented Kimberly Lawton in her complaint against the landlord and continues to represent her in her case against the neighbor which is still pending.

Joe Wincze- President of the Fair Housing Association of Connecticut- assisted Ms. Lawton in the filing of her complaint and in obtaining legal representation. Wincze points out that the reported abuse the complainant received from her neighbor was  obvious discrimination; but the lack of any kind of meaningful attempt by the landlord to remedy the problem was discrimination as well.  He cites the conclusion drawn in the Commission’s investigation regarding the landlord’s actions or lack thereof, “Respondents failure to act decisively in the Complainant’s behalf could only have contributed to a perception that Respondents condoned the perpetrator’s behavior thus fueled the perpetrator’s racially motivated, unbridled and unchecked antics which ultimately resulted in Complainant’s premature termination of her tenancy and that of her minor children.”

Wincze indicates that a landlord has the responsibility to get involved in a situation of this nature. “He or she is in the best position to take action because as the landlord they have the ultimate say.  They could warn the offensive tenant they will evict him if the harassment didn’t stop and then carry out the eviction if necessary.  In this case, there’s no evidence they even so much as talked to the neighbor.  Once Ms. Lawton explained to Mr. and Mrs. Rutkauskas what was going on, ‘not wanting to get involved’ was no longer a viable option for them.”