US court sides with Marsha Wetzel in senior housing suit
A US federal appeals court has ruled in favor of 70-year old Marsha Wetzel, who sued a suburban Chicago senior living center for not protecting her against harassment from other tenants.
The 20-page ruling by the three-judge panel of the Chicago-based 7th US Court of Appeals released last Monday was unanimous in reversing a lower-court decision against Wetzel’s case.
However, the court ruling didn’t assess the validity of Wetzel’s claims in her lawsuit but rather, allows the case to proceed in the district court.
Marsha Wetzel: Alone but still fighting
Wetzel met her partner Judith Kahn in 1982 and though they were never legally married, they held a commitment ceremony and were together for 30 years.
When Kahn died in 2013 of colon cancer, Wetzel was evicted by Kahn’s family from their home.
A social worker helped her find a place at the Glen Saint Andrew Living Community, a retirement home and assisted living facility.
While there, she faced harassment from the other residents when they found out she was a lesbian, with one resident telling her that “homosexuals will burn in hell.”
The living center was not helpful when Wetzel complained about the harassment, and even took retaliatory measures against her by barring her from common areas.
Decision favoring Marsha Wetzel in her suit
In its ruling, the court shot down Saint Andrew’s argument that it couldn’t address Wetzel’s complaint and even castigated them for taking a “blame-the-victim” approach
The court also said in their decision that the US Fair Housing Act obligates landlords to protect LGBT tenants from harassment from other tenants.
Attorney Karen Loewy of the LGBT rights group Lambda Legal said: “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.”
“Marsha Wetzel’s tenacity will help thousands of victims of housing discrimination,” said the National Fair Housing Alliance– which filed an amicus brief with six other housing groups– on Twitter.
Wetzel welcomed the ruling, saying: “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 case of Marsha Wetzel vs. Saint Andrew
Wetzel approached Lambda Legal in 2016 to help file a lawsuit on her behalf against the private for-profit facility.
According to the law advocates, the center violated the Fair Housing Act twice by not protecting Wetzel and then retaliating against her when she complained.
In January 2017, the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division sided with Saint Andrew in saying the facility didn’t have any liability against Wetzel.
With the ruling overturning the lower-court decision, Wetzel may now proceed with her lawsuit. There are also implications in the ruling for senior living providers across the board.
That is, according to Loewy, facilities who fail to put a stop to discriminatory harassment of any kind can face future litigation.