A lesbian senior in Illinois has won a landmark legal victory in a housing discrimination case with an appeals court judge ruling that landlords are required under federal law to stop tenants from harassing and discriminating against other tenants.
Marsha Wetzel, 70, sued the Glen Saint Andrew Living Community in Niles, Illinois, for failing to do anything about the harassment and discrimination she endured from other facility residents who targeted her because she is a lesbian, according to court documents.
“What’s particularly important about this decision is that the court said a landlord can be held liable for not ending tenant-on-tenant harassment or discrimination,” said Lambda Legal attorney Karen Loewy, who represented Wetzel.
Wetzel’s case will return to district court and proceed to trial. A trial date has not yet been set.
This ruling was the first time a federal appeals court has analyzed the ways a landlord can be liable under the Federal Fair Housing Act, Loewy said.
“The ruling sends a clear and loud message to housing providers that it’s their duty to stop harassment,” she said.
FEDERAL FAIR HOUSING ACT
The Federal Fair Housing Act says that a landlord who knows a tenant has harassed or discriminated another tenant based on a protected class, such as sexual orientation, and doesn’t take reasonable steps to stop it, can be held liable, Lowery said.
Lisa Hausten, attorney for the Glen Saint Andrew Living Community, did not respond to Q Voice News’ request for comment.
Lambda Legal filed a complaint in July 2016 on Wetzel’s behalf in the U.S. District Court for Northern Illinois. They argued that the retirement center violated both the Federal Fair Housing Act and the Illinois Human Rights Act.
The district court dismissed Wetzel’s claim in January 2017 and said that a landlord can’t be held responsible for other residents’ behavior, only their intentional discrimination. The court did not rule on whether sexual orientation discrimination was outlawed under the Federal Fair Housing Act.
However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit overturned that ruling in late August. They said that the Federal Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords from “purposefully failing to protect” a tenant from “harassment, discrimination and violence,” according to their ruling.
The appeals court also said sexual orientation was banned under the Federal Fair Housing Act.
Residents of the retirement community began to harass Wetzel after saying she had been in a 30-year relationship with her wife who died shortly before Wetzel moved to Glen Saint Andrew Living Community, according to One resident physically attacked Wetzel, and other residents called her homophobic slurs, including “fucking dyke,” “fucking faggot,” and “homosexual bitch,” according to court documents.
Wetzel reported the abuse and harassment to facility staff and administration, but she said nothing was done, according to the complaint.
“The Court 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 in a statement. “That’s not too much to ask. No one should have to endure what I endured because of who I am.”