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US court says Housing Act covers harassed LGBT tenant in Niles

A new survey shows family building is just as much a possibility for the LGBTQ community as those who are non-LGBTQ, | Adobe Stock Photo

CHICAGO — A federal appeals court found that the U.S. Fair Housing Act places obligations on landlords to protect LGBT tenants from harassment by other tenants.

The new ruling by the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Court of Appeals, posted late Monday, sides with 70-year-old Marsha Wetzel. She accused a suburban Chicago senior living center of doing nothing to stop other residents from hurling homophobic slurs at her, spitting on her and even striking her because of her sexual orientation.

The unanimous, 20-page ruling by the three-judge panel reverses a lower-court judge who tossed Wetzel’s lawsuit against the Glen Saint Andrew Living Community in Niles.

“Not only does (the Fair Housing Act) create liability when a landlord intentionally discriminates against a tenant based on a protected characteristic,” the ruling said, “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.”

Lawyers for Wetzel heralded the decision.

“The court has now put all landlords on notice that they have an obligation to take action to stop known harassment,” said attorney Karen Loewy of the LGBT rights group Lambda Legal.

Wetzel, who moved to facility after her partner of 30 years died in 2013, was told by one resident that “homosexuals will burn in hell,” while another intentionally rammed her scooter with a walker, toppling her and bruising her arm, filings by her attorneys alleged.

“No one should have to endure what I endured because of who I am,” she said in a statement welcoming the 7th Circuit ruling.

A message seeking comment from the center Tuesday wasn’t returned. It could try to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 7th Circuit panel noted the living center actually took retaliatory measures against Wetzel — not her harassers — for complaining about the abuse, including barring her from certain common areas.

“St. Andrew complains that it would be unfair to hold it liable for actions that it was incapable of addressing, but we are doing no such thing,” the appeals decision said. The center had many means available to seek to end the harassment, including by evicting those who doing the harassing. But it opted instead for “a blame-the-victim approach,” the court said.

The three 7th Circuit judges who issued the unanimous ruling were Judge Diane Wood and Judge David Hamilton, both appointed by then-President Bill Clinton. The third judge, Michael Kanne, was appointed by Ronald Reagan.