A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled on August 27 that a lesbian resident of a rental facility for seniors in Illinois may seek to hold the management of the facility accountable for severe harassment against her by other residents due to her sexual orientation. The ruling reversed a decision by U.S. District Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan, a George W. Bush appointee, to dismiss her case. The court of appeals decision marks an important appellate precedent for the protection of older LGBT people living in residential facilities. The case is Wetzel v Glen St. Andrew Living Community, LLC, Case No. 17-1322 (7th Cir., Aug. 27, 2018).
Marsha Wetzel moved into Glen St. Andrew Living Community after her partner of 30 years died. Under the Tenant’s Agreement she signed with the facility, she is entitled to a private apartment, three meals daily served in a central location, access to a community room, and use of laundry facilities. The agreement requires her (and all other tenants under their agreements) to refrain from “activity that [St. Andrew] determines unreasonably interferes with the peaceful use and enjoyment of the community by other tenants” or that is “a direct threat to the health and safety of other individuals.” The Agreement also authorizes the facility to bring eviction proceedings against a tenant who violates the Agreement.
Wetzel was not closeted, speaking openly with staff and other residents about her sexual orientation when she moved in. “She was met with intolerance from many of them,” wrote Chief Judge Diane Wood in summarizing the allegations in Wetzel’s Complaint. For purposes of ruling on the facility’s motion to dismiss her case, the court’s role is to accept Wetzel’s allegations as true and to decide whether those allegations, if proved at trial, would constitute a violation of her rights under the Fair Housing Act, which forbids discrimination because of sex.
Judge Wood’s summary of the Complaint makes horrific reading. “Beginning a few months after Wetzel moved to St. Andrew and continuing at least until she filed this suit (a 15-month period), residents repeatedly berated her for being a ‘fucking dyke,’ ‘fucking faggot,’ and ‘homosexual bitch.’ One resident, Robert Herr, told Wetzel that he reveled in the memory of the Orlando massacre at the Pulse nightclub, derided Wetzel’s son for being a ‘homosexual-raised faggot,’ and threatened to ‘rip [Wetzel’s] tits off.’ Herr was the primary, but not sole, culprit. Elizabeth Rivera told Wetzel that ‘homosexuals will burn in hell.’”
The Complaint also describes incidents of physical abuse, focused on knocking Wetzel off the motorized scooter she depends upon to get around, spitting at her, and striking her from behind accompanied by anti-gay epithets.
When she complained to the staff, there was a “brief respite,” but soon the misconduct continued. Indeed, Judge Wood wrote, “the management defendants otherwise were apathetic. They told Wetzel not to worry about the harassment, dismissed the conduct as accidental, denied Wetzel’s accounts, and branded her a liar.” Furthermore, Wetzel alleges, they retaliated against her by relegating her “to a less desirable dining room location” after she notified them about one incident of physical harassment by another resident, “barred her from the lobby except to get coffee” and “halted her cleaning services, thus depriving her of access to areas specifically protected in the Agreement.” They also false accused her of smoking in her room and one St. Andrews worker “slapped her across the face” when she denied having violated the no-smoking rule.
In what sounds like a transparent attempt to set her up for an eviction for non-payment, they failed to send her the customary rent-due notice sent to all tenants, but she remembered to pay on time, “but she had to pry a receipt from management.”
As a result of these management responses, Wetzel sharply curtailed her activities outside her room, staying away from common spaces including the dining room, and finally, fed up with this mistreatment, filed this lawsuit, alleging violations of the FHA as well as state laws. (Illinois laws forbid sexual orientation discrimination in housing and public accommodations.)
The facility did not argue in defense that the FHA does not ban sexual orientation discrimination. They could hardly raise such an argument in the 7th Circuit, because that court was the first appellate court to rule that sexual orientation claims are a subset of sex discrimination claims, under the similar anti-discrimination provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Instead, the defendant argued that the landlord cannot be held liable for discrimination by other tenants under the FHA without a showing of discriminatory animus by the landlord. Furthermore, it argued that FHA deals with refusals to rent, and does not cover “post-acquisition harassment claims.” In other words, as Judge Wood explained, once an apartment has been rented, the defendant argued that the FHA is no longer relevant to claims brought by “a tenant already occupying her home.” The defendant countered Wetzel’s retaliation claim by arguing, once again, that it lacked an allegation that defendants were motivated by discriminatory animus.
District Judge Der-Yeghiayan agreed with the defendants’ FHA arguments and dismissed the case. The dismissal of the FHA claim removed the basis for federal jurisdiction, and the judge declined to keep the state claims alive, dismissing them for lack of jurisdiction, although federal courts do have discretion to continue to consider state law claims in such cases.
Writing for the appeals court, Judge Wood relied on cases of workplace harassment decided under Title VII for a standard to apply to a harassment case brought under the FHA, for which there was no precedent in the 7th Circuit. “The harassment Wetzel describes plausibly can be viewed as both severe and pervasive,” she wrote, referring to the Title VII standard. “For 15 months, she was bombarded with threats, slurs, derisive comments about her family, taunts about a deadly massacre, physical violence, and spit. The defendants dismiss this litany of abuse as no more than ordinary ‘squabbles’ and ‘bickering’ between ‘irascible,’ ‘crotchety senior resident[s].’ A jury would be entitled to see the story otherwise.”
The question for the court was whether there was a basis to impute liability to St. Andrew for the hostile housing environment, a question new for the 7th Circuit. Again, the court borrowed from principles established under another statute, this time focusing more on Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, under which schools have been held liable for harassment of students by other students, when the harassment was brought to the attention of school authorities and they failed to take appropriate steps to assure that the harassed students were not denied equal educational opportunity because of their sex.
The question was whether the facility management had “actual knowledge of the severe harassment Wetzel was enduring and whether they were deliberately indifferent to it. If so,” wrote the judge, “they subjected Wetzel to conduct that the FHA forbids.” The court rejected St. Andrew’s argument that the landlord-tenant relationship is so different from the school-student relationship as to make such a test inappropriate. The court, finding that the defendant had inaccurately described the court’s holding, responded: “We have said only that the duty not to discriminate in housing conditions encompasses the duty not to permit known harassment on protected grounds. The landlord does have responsibility over the common areas of the building, which is where the majority of Wetzel’s harassment took place. And the incidents within her apartment occurred precisely because the landlord was exercising a right to enter.”
The court rejected St. Andrew’s argument that its ruling would unfairly hold St. Andrew liable for actions it was “incapable of addressing,” pointing out that the tenant Agreement signed by all residents imposed obligations on tenants not to engage in conduct that would constitute a “direct threat to the health and safety of other individuals” and to refrain from conduct that would “unreasonably” interfere with “the peaceful use and enjoyment of the community by other tenants.” This is, on its face, directly applicable to the conduct of other residents directed at Wetzel. And the Agreement gives the facility the right to seek to evict tenants who violate these rules. Yet, according to Wetzel’s Complaint, the facility took action against her for complaining rather than against her harassers for their misconduct.
The court also noted a rule published by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2016, providing that a landlord could be held liable under the FHA for failing to “take prompt action to correct and end a discriminatory housing practice by a third party” (such as a fellow resident in a rental building) if the landlord “knew or should have known of the discriminatory conduct and had the power to correct it.” The court said it did not need to rely on this rule, however, stating that “it is enough for present purposes to say that nothing in the HUD rule standings in the way of recognizing Wetzel’s theory” for landlord liability in her case.
The court also discounted St. Andrew’s argument that this case is just about “bad manners” by some residents. “It is important,” wrote Wood, “to recognize that the facts Wetzel has presented (which we must accept at this stage) go far beyond mere rudeness, all the way to direct physical violence.” She noted that under Title VII courts have routinely had to distinguish between hostile environment harassment and mere incivility.
The court also decisively rejected St. Andrew’s claim that the FHA anti-discrimination provision does not apply once the apartment is leased to the tenant. The statute bans discrimination regarding “services or facilities,” and the court pointed out that “few ‘services or facilities’ are provided prior to the point of sale or rental; far more attach to a resident’s occupancy.” In this case, Wetzel’s allegations included her virtual exclusion from the enjoyment of the common areas of the building, and denial of certain services to which she was entitled under the tenant Agreement. “At a minimum, then,” wrote the court, “Wetzel has a cognizable post-acquisition claim because discrimination affected the provision of services and facilities connected to her rental. Beyond that, the discrimination diminished the privileges of Wetzel’s rental.”
The court also rejected St. Andrew’s argument, which the district court had accepted, that the anti-retaliation provision of the statute required proof of the landlord’s discriminatory intent. “Indeed,” wrote Judge Wood, “if we were to read the FHA’s anti-retaliation provision to require that a plaintiff allege discriminatory animus, it would be an anomaly. Like all anti-retaliation provisions, it provides protections not because of who people are, but because of what they do.” The focus, thus, is on whether the landlord takes some adverse action after a tenant complains about violation of her rights under the FHA, not whether the landlord is biased against somebody because she is a lesbian.
In sending the case back to the district court, the Court of Appeals revived Wetzel’s FHA claim and also directed to the court to “reinstate the state-law claims that were dismissed for want of jurisdiction.”
Wetzel is represented by Lambda Legal and cooperating attorneys from Foley & Lardner LLP.