Melbourne, Arkansas - The Justice Department announced Thursday that the White River Regional Housing Authority in Melbourne, Arkansas, has agreed to pay $70,000 to resolve a lawsuit alleging that it and its former employee, Duane Johnson, violated the Fair Housing Act (FHA) when Johnson sexually harassed an applicant who sought a Housing Choice Voucher from the Housing Authority.
The settlement, which must still be approved by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, will resolve the United States’ lawsuit, also filed Thursday, under the Fair Housing Act. The lawsuit alleges that in 2020, a woman who was living with her two minor children at a shelter for survivors of domestic violence and abuse applied to the Housing Authority for a Housing Choice Voucher in Cleburne County, Arkansas. The Housing Authority assigned the application to Duane Johnson, a Housing Authority employee who, among other duties, served as the Housing Choice Voucher coordinator for Cleburne County.
“All people deserve equal access to critical housing benefits, including vouchers, without being subjected to sexual harassment,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Housing assistance programs are designed to help people when they need it the most. The Justice Department will not tolerate officials who abuse their power by sexually harassing housing voucher applicants and will continue to use the law to hold perpetrators accountable.”
“Thursday’s announcement demonstrates that officials who use their control over the grant of public assistance programs in order to exploit sexual acts from those in need of assistance will be held accountable,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Jonathan D. Ross for the Eastern District of Arkansas. “Our office will continue to work with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to investigate and hold accountable all who similarly abuse their positions of public trust.”
“Renters whose names rise to the top of coveted Housing Choice Voucher waiting lists should not have to submit to unwelcomed sexual harassment before obtaining housing assistance,” Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Demetria McCain of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. “HUD applauds Thursday’s settlement and remains committed to working with the Justice Department to ensure that everyone in a position to control access to housing meets their responsibilities under the Fair Housing Act.”
The lawsuit alleges that Johnson sexually harassed the applicant. Specifically, the suit alleges, Johnson touched the applicant without her consent, requested that she provide him with full-frontal nude photographs in exchange for his assistance in finding housing, made graphic descriptions of the poses he wanted for the photographs, made other unwelcome sexual advances and threatened to post nude photographs of the applicant on Facebook if she reported him. Although the Housing Authority later notified the applicant that she could receive a Housing Choice Voucher, the lawsuit alleges that she chose not accept a voucher because she was afraid of Johnson and did not want him to know where she lived. The lawsuit also alleges that the Housing Authority is vicariously liable for Johnson’s unlawful conduct.
The applicant filed a complaint against the Housing Authority and Johnson with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). After an investigation, HUD determined that the Housing Authority and Johnson had discriminated against the applicant in violation of the Fair Housing Act and it issued a charge of discrimination. After the applicant chose to have the matter decided in federal court, the HUD referred the matter to the Department of Justice.
Under the settlement, the Housing Authority will pay a total of $70,000 in monetary damages to the applicant, adopt and maintain an anti-discrimination policy with a complaint procedure, and provide training on the Fair Housing Act to its employees. The settlement also permanently bars Johnson from participating in the management of residential rental property and from participating in any public housing program.
The Justice Department’s Sexual Harassment in Housing Initiative is led by the Civil Rights Division, in coordination with U.S. Attorneys' Offices across the country. The goal of the initiative is to address and raise awareness about sexual harassment by landlords, property managers, maintenance workers, loan officers or other people who have control over housing. Since launching the Initiative in October 2017, the Department of Justice has filed 23 lawsuits alleging sexual harassment in housing and recovered over $4.1 million for victims of such harassment. HUD also has developed a Sexual Harassment Training Initiative with training sessions and educational resources about preventing and addressing sexual harassment, and launched a public awareness campaign – Call HUD: Because Sexual Harassment in Housing is Illegal.