Southeast Ohio Legal Services addresses federal housing discrimination case

SEOLS addresses the Independent’s questions about fair housing and the sexual harassment lawsuit against local landlord Joseph Earl Lucas.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a lawsuit against Athens County landlord Joseph Earl Lucas, of Amesville, for sexually harassing female tenants since at least 2004. Below, Southeast Ohio Legal Services Managing Attorney Lucy Schwallie addresses the Independent’s questions about the case.

Read more: Athens County landlord faces federal sexual harassment suit

SEOLS provides free civil legal aid to residents throughout southeast Ohio, and frequently works on housing cases related to the Fair Housing Act. The law, under which the DOJ brought its claims against Lucas, prohibits discrimination in housing accommodations.


Although Schwallie said SEOLS is “extremely limited regarding our ability to comment on our involvement — or non-involvement — with the DOJ’s lawsuit against Joe Lucas,” SEOLS addresses broader issues with housing discrimination, sexual harassment and tenant rights and recourse below.

Schwallie’s responses to the Independent, provided by email, have been edited for style.

Has SEOLS been aware of sexual harassment claims against Lucas over the years? What has been the nature of SEOLS’ involvement in pursuing these claims?

While we cannot speak specifically about Mr. Lucas’s case, we can say that we often hear stories from our clients regarding sexual harassment, sexual assault and “quid pro quo” requests from different housing providers in the region. This conduct is a violation of federal and state fair housing laws. 

In these situations, SEOLS attorneys help our clients navigate the complicated options regarding available legal recourse. Sometimes this involves an SEOLS attorney assisting in a HUD or Ohio Civil Rights Commission complaint, sometimes this involves an SEOLS attorney representing the client in state or federal court, sometimes this means referring a client or group of clients to the Department of Justice for consideration of an enforcement action. 

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What is your reaction to the lawsuit?

We are thrilled that the Department of Justice chose to apply its significant resources here in Athens County to vigorously enforce fair housing laws to hold landlords who prey on vulnerable tenants and housing applicants accountable. 

Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, this sends a strong and clear message: Landlords are not above the law, and there are options for Athens County tenants who come forward to report illegal sexual harassment.

Do you believe the problem of landlords sexually harassing tenants is more widespread in Athens County and the region? What recourse do tenants have?

Unfortunately, violations of federal fair housing law remain common across the state and country. 

There are particular factors at play in Athens County, and similar rural Appalachian counties, that make detection and enforcement of sexual harassment in housing a particular challenge. These include the rural nature of our county — tenants of the same landlord are frequently not in close proximity and do not have an opportunity to discuss patterns of illegal harassment. Athens is also in the middle of an affordable housing crisis, where affordable, safe housing options are few and far between. Finally, many of our clients are shut out of a large percentage of housing options, because of criminal background checks or credit checks. 

All of these factors make the decision to come forward challenging for our clients. 

Are you concerned that Lucas allegedly engaged in discriminatory conduct for nearly two decades without consequences? What needs to change within the system to prevent that kind of abuse?

Any time a landlord’s actions violate our fair housing laws, especially in a way that preys on vulnerable tenants with few options for alternative housing, it should be of great concern to our community. If, as this lawsuit alleges, this occurred over a long period of time without consequence, it should raise even greater concern. 

This lawsuit demonstrates the Department of Justice’s commitment to enforcing fair housing laws, and we are hopeful that this makes clear that there will be consequences for landlords who violate these laws. We would encourage any tenants who have experienced any kind of sexual harassment from their housing provider to contact SEOLS, as our program is there to guide and represent the individual through the available legal options. 

SEOLS can also come speak to community groups and agencies regarding fair housing laws to help educate the community about these important laws. Finally, if a friend, colleague, family member or neighbor mentions something about sexual harassment from a landlord, please encourage them to come forward. This may prevent future tenants from facing the same illegal conduct. Our office can be reached at (844) 302-1800 or

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