Appeals court allows lesbian resident to sue senior living facility over discrimination

Appeals court allows lesbian resident to sue senior living facility over discrimination
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A federal appeals court ruled Monday that an Illinois senior living facility can be held liable for failing to protect a lesbian resident from harassment, discrimination and violence.

In a 3-0 ruling, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out the district court’s decision to dismiss a lawsuit Marsha Wetzel brought against Glen St. Andrew Living Community in Niles, Ill.

Wetzel alleged she was verbally and physically abused by residents for being a lesbian, and when she complained to the nursing home facility they retaliated against her for complaining. She alleged staff barred her from certain areas of the facility, halting her cleaning services and falsely accusing her of smoking in her room.

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The district court sided with the facility's claim that the Fair Housing Act does not make a landlord accountable for failing to stop tenant‐on‐tenant harassment unless the landlord’s inaction was animated by a discriminatory animus.

But Chief Judge Diane Wood said the Seventh Circuit reads the Fair Housing Act more broadly.

“Not only does it 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,” she wrote.

Because there is no agency or custodial relationship between a landlord and tenant, the facility argued a landlord has no duty to protect its tenants from discriminatory harassment.

But Wood said the court has not gone that far.

"We have said only that the duty not to discriminate in housing conditions encompasses the duty not to permit known harassment on protected grounds," she wrote. "The landlord does have responsibility over the common areas of the building, which is where the majority of Wetzel’s harassment took place. And the incidents within her apartment occurred precisely because the landlord was exercising a right to enter.”

Lambda Legal, which represented Wetzel, called the court’s ruling a tremendous victory for her.

“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,” Karen Loewy, Lambda Legal senior counsel and seniors strategist, said in a statement.

“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.”

In a statement of her own Wetzel said the court stuck a blow for her “and for all senior citizens – gay or straight – who deserve to feel safe and to be treated with respect.”

“That’s not too much to ask, she said. “No one should have to endure what I endured because of who I am,” she said.

In a statement, Glen St. Andrew said it is committed to providing fair, safe and nondiscriminatory housing, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sex or sexual orientation.

"At this stage, the court was required to assume the factual allegations of plaintiff’s complaint were true for purposes of determining the legal issues," the facility said. "Glen St. Andrews strongly denies the factual allegations of the complaint and will present its case in court at the appropriate time." 

Updated at 5:24 p.m.