Seventh Circuit rules housing providers may be liable for Anti-LGBTQ abuse

Marsha Wetzel

CHICAGO – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on Monday overturned a lower court ruling and held that a Niles, Illinois, retirement home can be held accountable for failing to protect a lesbian senior.

Marsha Wetzel had suffered harassment, discrimination and violence from other residents at the Glen St. Andrew Living Community in Niles.

“This is a tremendous victory for Marsha,” said Karen Loewy, Lambda Legal senior counsel and seniors strategist, in a statement from Lambda Legal. “She, just like all people living in rental housing, whether LGBT or not, should be assured that they will at least be safe from discriminatory harassment in their own homes. What happened to Marsha was illegal and unconscionable, and the Court has now put all landlords on notice that they have an obligation to take action to stop known harassment.

“This duty is particularly clear for senior living facilities like Glen St. Andrew, whose staff are entrusted and paid to provide a safe living environment for seniors, including LGBT residents. We are grateful that the Court understood and reinforced that understanding.”

In today’s ruling, the court said:

“Not only does [the Fair Housing Act] create liability when a landlord intentionally discriminates against a tenant based on a protected characteristic; it also creates liability against a landlord that has actual notice of tenant‐on‐tenant harassment based on a protected status, yet chooses not to take any reasonable steps within its control to stop that harassment.”

Noting that Lambda Legal’s victory in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, ruling that discrimination based on sexual orientation qualifies as discrimination based on sex, “applies with equal force” under the Fair Housing Act, the Court held that “the harassment Wetzel describes plausibly can be viewed as both severe and pervasive,” rejecting the facility’s attempt to dismiss the litany of abuse Marsha experienced “as no more than ordinary ‘squabbles’ and ‘bickering’ between ‘irascible,’ ‘crotchety senior resident[s].’”

Glen St. Andrew Living Community is a for-profit senior living facility in Niles. Wetzel moved into the facility after being evicted from the home she shared with her late partner by her partner’s siblings. After she disclosed to other residents that she had been in a 30-year relationship with a woman and that they had raised a child together, some residents began to harass her, physically attack her and call her names like “fucking dyke,” “fucking faggot,” and “homosexual bitch.”

Wetzel reported these incidents of harassment and abuse to facility administrators, but the staff marginalized and alienated Marsha and retaliated against her for complaining about the harassment. She contacted the Lambda Legal Help Desk after the facility did not address her complaints.

In July 2016, Lambda Legal filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois arguing that Glen St. Andrew’s actions violated both the federal Fair Housing Act and the Illinois Human Rights Act. In January 2017, the Court dismissed the case without reference to the sex or sexual orientation claims, broadening the question at stake to the senior living facility’s general responsibility for protecting residents against resident-on-resident harassment and violence. Lambda Legal appealed to the Seventh Circuit, which reversed the District Court’s ruling, reinstating Marsha’s federal and state discrimination and retaliation claims, and remanded the matter for further proceedings.

The case is being litigated by Lambda Legal Senior Counsel and Seniors Strategist Karen Loewy, along with Law Fellow Kara Ingelhart, and Foley & Lardner LLP Co-Counsel John Litchfield, Ellen Wheeler, Will Lopez and A.J. Schumacher.

Watch Marsha talk about her experience: https://youtu.be/d8qd7-pq0E8

Learn more about LGBT Seniors and Housing: http://www.lambdalegal.org/blog/housing-rights-of-seniors

For more information on the case and to review legal documents filed on behalf of Marsha Wetzel throughout the matter, please visit:  https://www.lambdalegal.org/in-court/cases/il_wetzel-v-glen-st-andrew

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