Elderly woman ‘harassed and assaulted for being lesbian’ can sue housing facility

Housing providers can be held liable for anti-LGBT abuse levelled at seniors, a court has ruled.

The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on Monday ruled in favour of 70-year-old Marsha Wetzel, who suffered horrendous abuse while at the Glen St. Andrew Living Community in Niles, Illinois.

The senior had moved into the facility after her same-sex partner of 30 years died and she was forced to leave their shared home by her late partner’s siblings.

Marsha Wetzel

However when residents at the care facility learned that she was a lesbian, Wetzel alleges that they “began to harass her, physically attack her and call her names like ‘fucking dyke,’ ‘fucking faggot,’ and ‘homosexual bitch.’

Although she reported the harassment and abuse to facility administrators, her suit alleges that the staff “marginalised and alienated” the senior and retaliated against her for complaining about the harassment.

In its ruling this week, the appeals court ruled that she had a right to pursue a lawsuit under the Fair Housing Act and the Illinois Human Rights Act – overturning the decision of a lower court.

In a release Wetzel said: “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.

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

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.”

The Court held that “the harassment Wetzel describes plausibly can be viewed as both severe and pervasive,” after the facility attempted to dismiss the abuse she suffered as “as no more than ordinary ‘squabbles’ and ‘bickering’ between ‘irascible,’ ‘crotchety senior residents.’”

Marsha Wetzel

Karen Loewy of Lambda Legal said: “This is a tremendous victory for Marsha.

“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 decision allows Wetzel to proceed with her claim against the facility.