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Are Landlords Liable When Tenants Threaten Violence on Facebook? They Can Be

by Editor | ezLandlordForms

Can landlords be held liable when online harassment between two tenants escalates to physical violence? According to a recent decision by an Ohio appellate court, the answer is may be yes.

Lindsay P, a single mother, lived in an apartment operated by Towne Properties Asset Management. The unit was located above the apartment leased by Rhonda Schmidt, whose boyfriend, Courtney Haynes, also lived in the apartment (but who was not on the lease agreement). On several occasions Lindsay reported loud music and yelling coming from the downstairs apartment, to both Towne Properties Asset Management and the police. She also left post-it notes on Schmidt and Haynes’s door, respectfully asking that they quiet down.

In response, Haynes retaliated by banging on Lindsay’s door and yelling at her from outside her apartment. Late one night, Lindsay began receiving Facebook messages from someone she suspected to be Haynes. The messages were sexually explicit in nature and Lindsay made several unsuccessful attempts to get the sender to reveal their identity. However, Haynes made reference to their arguments in the past as well as turned the music in his apartment up loudly and asked Lindsay if she could hear it.

Lindsay reported the messages to management and stated that she was very fearful of Haynes. Management printed the messages and told Lindsay to report the incident to the police. She later asked management to be released from her lease contract because she felt unsafe in her apartment. Management explained she would be in violation of her lease if she vacated before the end of the term, but they offered to move her to a different apartment several streets away, which was on the first floor and Lindsay expressed her concern about the location and the easy access to the apartment. After Lindsay moved into the apartment, management told Haynes that she moved and not to have any further contact with her.

Around the same time, the property management firm realized that Haynes was not listed on the lease of Schmidt’s apartment and told Schmidt that Haynes would have to vacate the property. After a request by Schmidt, management took steps to officially add him to the lease but due to negative credit history, decided against adding Haynes.

In a sad turn of events, shortly after Lindsay moved and while Haynes was still living with Schmidt, he broke into Lindsay’s new apartment and raped her in the apartment while her young daughter was present. Beyond filing criminal charges against Haynes, Lindsay also filed a civil action against Towne Properties Management for negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress and breach of contract. The case was initially granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant Towne Properties Management but was later reversed and remanded for a trial.

So what does this mean for landlords and property managers? And can they face implications for the online harassment of their tenants? Attorney and author of The Legal Intelligencer article “Landlord Liability if Online Harassment of Tenant Turns Violent,” Jeffrey Rosenthal, offers landlords a few tips.

First, landlords should be diligent in documenting all instances of tenant harassment, including physical and online misconduct. Documentation is vital in all aspects of landlording and property management, but when dealing with tenant harassment it is especially crucial given the heightened risks of legal action. Be sure to document all cases of tenant harassment, big or small, to ensure that all issues are properly addressed.

Second, if landlords or property managers have a policy to ban unwelcomed visitors from the property or has a history of doing so, be sure to apply the policy uniformly when complaints escalate or there is a possibility of physical harm. Jeffrey Rosenthal further explains, “It certainly appears attempting to add Haynes to the lease was a misstep. Indeed, banned individuals may be considered trespassers if found at the property, which, in turn, may limit the landlord’s liability for criminal conduct. The fact that Towne Properties issued notifications to others who caused trouble at the complex—whereas Haynes never received a similar admonition despite his known dangerous propensities, and instead, was given the opportunity to be added to Schmidt’s lease—was of particular significance.”

Third, landlords should be flexible when considering letting a tenant out of their lease contract where extenuating circumstances are present. In a situation such as the Lindsay case, it seems there was ample reason to consider releasing the tenant from the lease due to the severity and nature of the harassment. Lastly, if relocating aharassed tenant, the relocation should always be kept confidential.

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