The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently issued a decision in Wetzel v. Glen S. Andrew Living Community. There are important legal takeaways that are discussed below. The most jarring takeaway though, from the humanity perspective, is that even elderly people, who should know better, can still act like assholes.
As the opinion lays out, After Marsha Wetzel’s partner of 30 years died, she moved into St. Andrew, a residential community for older adults. [That slight woman pictured above is Wetzel – photo courtesy of the Washington Post]. The rental agreement provided for a private apartment; three meals a day in a central dining area; access to a community room and use of the laundry facilities. After Wetzel arrived, she made no secret of the fact she was a lesbian and was open about it with staff and other residents. Her sexuality did not sit well with other residents. They crudely and routinely berated for being a lesbian. [One resident even told her that he enjoyed the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. How could a guy that filled with bile live long enough to become a senior citizen?]. Grotesque threats of violence were made against her. And it didn’t end there.
Wetzel used a motorized scooter. The same resident who made the Pulse nightclub comment rammed his walker into Wetzel’s scooter and knocked her off a ramp. Another resident crashed her wheelchair into a table where Wetzel was seated, causing the table to collapse onto Wetzel. While collecting her mail, Wetzel was struck in the back of the head and knocked off her scooter. She was spat at and harassed in common areas.
Wetzel reported the abuse and harassment to the staff at St. Andrew. Initially the staff interceded. But then apathy set in. Eventually staff concluded the harassing conduct was “accidental”[?]. Then staff decided Wetzel was lying. And then, they retaliated against Wetzel for complaining. Her dining room assignment was changed to a less desirable location. She was barred from the lobby. Cleaning services were halted. Staff made false accusations that Wetzel was smoking in her room. One morning staff entered Wetzel’s apartment to see if she was smoking. When Wetzel understandably indicated that she had been sleeping, she was slapped. Eventually Wetzel’s existence was limited to her room. She avoided the floor where her most persistent abuser lived. She avoided the common areas and refused to do her laundry when she was alone.
Wetzel filed suit against St. Andrew alleging it failed to provide her with non-discriminatory housing and retaliated against her for complaining, in violation of the Fair Housing Act[“FHA”]42 U.S.C. Sections 3601-3619. St. Andrew moved to dismiss on some arcane legal basis that doesn’t merit discussion. The District Court agreed however, liked the argument and and tossed the case.
But still, Marsha persisted. She appealed.
And she won. The Seventh Circuit held that the FHA creates liability when a landlord intentionally discriminates against a tenant on a protected characteristic[sexuality]. And the Seventh Circuit also held that landlord can be liable when it has actual notice of tenant on tenant harassment based on sexuality and does nothing to stop it. Wetzel’s case was reinstated.
Wetzel continues to live at St. Andrew. No word if her tormentors are still there. Maybe they found their Val Halla. Some place where there are no lesbians. Some place where they can be with their own kind – small, mean, stupid people.
Good on ya Marsha.