Tenants Sue Landlords for Severe Violations of Privacy and Sexual Harassment at Home

December 12, 2014

Gabbi Pierce, Communications Manager
[email protected]

Saint Paul, Minn.—

Days before secretly installing a video camera trained on tenant Tasheena Lewis’ shower, her landlord fired off this text message: “OMG I JUST MET THE GIRL MOVING INTO THE APT UPSTAIRS SHE IS SO FINE!!! I’M GOING TO TAP THAT ASS!!!!!LOL”

Thankfully, Lewis discovered the hidden camera and moved out of the apartment in his St. Paul building.

Privacy violations in rental housing are surprisingly common; they are one of the top five legal issues for which Minnesota callers to the nonprofit tenant hotline HOME Line sought assistance last year. Female tenants like Lewis are especially likely to be subjected to unwanted invasions of their privacy. Seventy-one percent of the Minnesota HOME Line callers were female.

Existing laws require landlords to give “reasonable” notice before entering a tenant’s home, but in practice, renters often fear for their safety and face retaliation when they invoke their rights. Property owners or managers typically carry keys to their rental units, and a recommendation from a former landlord can greatly influence a tenant’s future housing options. Even when an individual does intend to enforce their rights, they must wait fourteen days before filing a rent escrow case in housing court. Such cases often take several more weeks to play out in court.

With help from HOME Line and Gender Justice, a nonprofit law firm that focuses on gender barriers, two separate lawsuits were filed yesterday in Hennepin County District Court on behalf of female tenants alleging sexual harassment both say they experienced at home.  (See Lewis v. [redacted], 0:14-CV-04971; Malchow v. Tam, 27-CV-14-20178).

“Harassment at home is especially traumatic because victims and their families have no place to retreat from the abuse, and they risk losing their housing if they complain.

— Jill Gaulding, Co-Founder of Gender Justice

That’s something Kimberly Malchow, who filed suit alleging sexual harassment against her former landlord Harvey Tam, knows all too well.

Malchow’s suit claims Tam sexually harassed her and consistently violated her privacy in her Richfield, Minnesota home. At one point, the suit explains, Tam barged into Malchow’s bedroom after learning she was breastfeeding her daughter.

Unable to find another apartment, Malchow demanded an end to her landlord’s abuse. Her family was soon facing eviction and homelessness.

“Difficulty finding replacement housing makes low income renters and single-parent families most vulnerable to harassment. Threats of eviction are especially compelling, because the eviction stays on your record.

— Jess Mikkelson, HOME Line Attorney

To avoid sending her family to a shelter, Malchow temporarily moved back into Tam’s building while she sought other options, but Tam’s harassment became even worse. When she objected to it, he evicted her yet again.

“We clearly need to do a better job of protecting renters from privacy violations and sexual harassment at home,” said Gaulding. “These two lawsuits are proof of that.”

Past legislative proposals aimed at strengthening privacy rights in rental housing have included specifying a clear notice timeline (24 hours instead of what the landlord deems “reasonable”), increasing the $100 penalty for privacy violations, and offering tenants a choice to file privacy cases more speedily in conciliation or district court.

About Gender Justice:   Gender Justice is a nonprofit legal advocacy organization that seeks to eliminate gender inequality through litigation, public policy advocacy, and education programs. Founded in 2010, Gender Justice is based in the Twin Cities and serves the Upper Midwest. For more information visit www.genderjustice.us, find us on Facebook, (www.facebook.com/genderjustice) or follow @GenderJustice on Twitter.

About HOME Line:   HOME Line provides free legal, organizing, educational and advocacy services so tenants throughout Minnesota can solve their own rental housing problems.  HOME Line works to improve public and private policies relating to rental housing by involving affected tenants in the process. Established in 1992, the organization expanded its free legal services statewide and is on pace to advise over 15,000 Minnesota renter households in 2014. More information on HOME Line is available at www.homelinemn.org.


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