Court of Appeals Sends Discrimination Suit Against Senior Living Facility Back to District Court
Back in 1968, just one week after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated; President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act into law. In its original form, the Fair Housing Act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, and national origin. It wasn’t until amendments were passed in 1974 and 1988, respectively, that sex and then disability and familial status were added. The Fair Housing Act prevents landlords from refusing to sell or rent housing to individuals based on those protected classes. But, what is a landlord’s responsibility when it comes to the actions of his or her tenant’s, and is sexual orientation also a protected class? These are the questions being answered in a court case in Illinois.
Marsha Wetzel v. Glen St. Andrew Living Community
Marsha Wetzel is a 70-year-old gay woman who lives at the Glen St. Andrew Living Community in Niles, Illinois. She filed a federal lawsuit against the landlord for failing to protect her from the harassment of other tenants. Ms. Wetzel alleged that she was “taunted and attacked” for being a lesbian by fellow residents, that the staff of the facility was aware of the situation, and that they failed to do anything about it.
The first legal question raised in this lawsuit is whether a landlord can be held accountable for the acts of their tenants. The District Court, the first step in the federal legal system, said no, and dismissed Ms. Wetzel’s case. Ms. Wetzel then appealed the ruling to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals found that the District Court erred in its ruling, stating:
Not only does it (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 … yet chooses not to take any reasonable steps within its control to stop that harassment, 7th Circuit Appeals Court Chief Judge Diane Wood wrote.
After issuing its ruling, the Court of Appeals ordered the case back to District Court to be tried again, with the explicit instruction of the Court of Appeals that a landlord can be held liable for its tenants’ behavior.
The second, and more significant question this lawsuit raises is whether sexual orientation is a protected characteristic under the FHA. Remember, the FHA simply lists “sex” as a protected class, not “sexual orientation.”
Should the District Court reverse its initial ruling and find in favor of Ms. Wetzel, the precedent could be set that sexual orientation is indeed covered under the Fair Housing Act. If Ms. Wetzel does end up victorious when all is said and done, this case will not only affect how senior living facilities operate moving forward, but it will be relevant to all landlords across the country.
While Ms. Wetzel’s victory at the Court of Appeals level is seen as a huge victory for housing and LGBT advocates, the final, enforceable decision is still to come.