Appeals Court Hears Case Of 70-Year-Old Lesbian Harassed, Spit On, Called Names, In Nursing Home

The case could affect whether the Fair Housing Act protects LGBT tenants.

An appeals court heard opening arguments this week in a case that could establish if The Fair Housing Act protects LGBT tenants from harassment by other residents.

Four years ago, after her parter of 30 years passed away, 70-year-old Marsha Wetzel moved into the Glen Saint Andrew Living Community in Niles, Illinois. In a suit before the 7th U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago, Wetzel alleged serious harassment from other residents because of her sexual orientation. One told her “homosexuals will burn in hell,” while another intentionally rammed her scooter with a walker, toppling Wetzel and bruising her arm. At least once, Wetzel says, she was spit on.

“They went World War III,” Wetzel told the Chicago Tribune. “It went through this rumor mill. It got to people. I started getting called names. And in a couple of weeks, it just kept getting worse and worse and worse.”

She’s not taking her neighbors to court, though—Wetzel is holding management at Glen Saint Andrew accountable for negligently allowing the abuse.

Last year, a judge rejected the suit, stating Wetzel hadn’t shown administrators displayed “any discriminatory animus, motive or intent.” A lawyer for Glen Saint Andrew agrees, claiming the incidents stemmed from “on-going squabbles with an older male resident and a couple of isolated incidents with two elderly females.”

“[Her] quarrels with her fellow seniors, regardless of how cranky or offensive their words, are not sufficient to maintain an action under the Fair Housing Act,” wrote attorney Lisa Hausten.

On Tuesday, a three-judge panel debated whether federal housing law, as currently written, can be interpreted to hold administrators liable for tenants’ behavior. While Judge Diane Wood was sympathetic, accusing the home of “shrugg[ing] their shoulders” when they learned about the harassment, Judge David Hamilton seemed skeptical.

“I don’t see any case cited where a landlord is held liable for tenant-on-tenant harassment,” he said.

Wetzel’s lawyer, Karen Loewy of Lambda Legal, countered that this wasn’t a typical tenant dispute, but a situation involving “severe or pervasive harassment” that undermined Wetzel’s fundamental rights. And as an assisted living facility, Glen Saint Andrew had an obligation to its tenants’ safety and dignity.

The appeals panel is expected to rule on Wetzel’s case within the next several weeks.

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.