VICTORY! Seventh Circuit Holds Housing Providers May Be Liable for Anti-LGBT Abuse Endured by Residents

Browse By

Blog Search

August 27, 2018
Comments

In a case closely watched by both LGBT and housing rights advocates, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit today overturned a lower court ruling and held that Glen St. Andrew Living Community in Niles, Illinois, can be held accountable for purposefully failing to protect lesbian senior Marsha Wetzel from the harassment, discrimination and violence she suffered at the hands of other residents because of her sex and sexual orientation.

“This is a tremendous victory for Marsha,” said Karen Loewy, Lambda Legal Senior Counsel and Seniors Strategist. “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.”

“The Court today struck a blow for me and for all senior citizens – gay or straight – who deserve to feel safe and to be treated with respect,” Wetzel said. “That’s not too much to ask. No one should have to endure what I endured because of who I am.”

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, Illinois. Marsha 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.”

Marsha reported these incidents of harassment and abuse to facility administrators, but rather than taking action to address the ongoing discrimination, 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.