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Landlords Are Required to Protect Residents From Anti-Gay Attacks, Court Says

Appeals court overturns dismissal of retirement home case   

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En español | In a victory for older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) adults, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit this week ruled that landlords can be held liable under the Fair Housing Act for failing to protect residents from anti-gay abuse from other residents.

AARP filed an amicus brief in the lawsuit brought by Lambda Legal, an LGBT rights organization, against Glen St. Andrew Living Community, a senior-living facility in Niles, Ill., on behalf of Marsha Wetzel. Wetzel moved into Glen St. Andrew when her same-sex partner died after a 30-year relationship. According to the lawsuit, at Glen St. Andrew Wetzel was “subjected to a pattern of discrimination and harassment because of her sex and sexual orientation,” including three separate assaults at the hands of other residents.

Wetzel sought help from Lambda Legal when Glen St. Andrew administrators failed to address her complaints, the lawsuit says. In July 2016, Lambda Legal filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, arguing that Glen St. Andrew’s actions violated both the federal Fair Housing Act and the Illinois Human Rights Act. The court dismissed the case in January 2017. Lambda Legal appealed to the 7th Circuit, which reversed the dismissal. AARP’s brief detailed the problems older LGBT adults may face in senior housing and argued that landlords have many options to protect tenants from harassment. Now the case is headed back to the district court for further action.

“This is an important victory for older LGBT adults like Ms. Wetzel and for all tenants,” said Susan Ann Silverstein, senior attorney at AARP Foundation. “We are very pleased that the court recognized that landlords have a responsibility to prevent and address harassment, regardless of whether the landlords themselves intended to discriminate.”

Wetzel, “just like all people living in rental housing, whether LGBT or not, should be assured that they will at least be safe from discriminatory harassment in their own homes,” said Karen Loewy, Lambda Legal senior counsel and seniors strategist. “What happened to Marsha was illegal and unconscionable, and the Court has now put all landlords on notice that they have an obligation to take action to stop known harassment.”

According to AARP research, an estimated 3 million LGBT individuals in the United States are 65 or older. More than 60 percent of those who responded to AARP’s “Maintaining Dignity” survey of LGBT Americans age 45 and older said they think they might be refused or receive limited care in an assisted living facility, and they also fear they would be in danger of neglect, abuse or verbal or physical harassment. Nearly 90 percent of LGBT adults worry they will have to hide their identity in order to have access to suitable housing as they age.

Glen St. Andrews issued a statement “strongly [denying] the factual allegations of the complaint” and said it “will present its case in court at the appropriate time.”

Wetzel has moved to a different assisted living facility.