Ruling in Senior Housing Suit Puts Treatment of LGBT Residents in Spotlight

An Illinois woman can now sue the retirement community where she resides, in a case over alleged homophobic harassment she suffered from other residents. This is due to an appeals court decision that is garnering attention for its possible housing law implications.

Marsha Wetzel, who lives at the Glen St. Andrews senior living community in Niles, Illinois, alleged that some of the other residents there taunted her with homophobic slurs, intimidated her, and even assaulted her on several occasions. Wetzel, who is a lesbian, moved into the community in 2014 after the death of her longtime partner, with whom she raised a son.

Though Wetzel complained to the senior living community’s management on multiple occasions, little was done to stop the anti-gay harassment, her attorneys alleged in a 2016 lawsuit against the retirement home. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois agreed to toss the suit early in 2017.

Yesterday, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit overturned the lower court’s decision, meaning Wetzel may proceed with her lawsuit. The court’s three-judge panel said that landlords have an obligation under the U.S. Fair Housing Act—which prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability—to stop known discriminatory harassment of one resident by others.

The appeals court did not address the factual allegations of the lawsuit, which Glen St. Andrews denied in a statement to Senior Housing News.

“Glen St. Andrews is committed to providing fair, safe and non-discriminatory housing for its residents, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sex or sexual orientation,” a representative for the community told Senior Housing News in an email. “At this stage, the court was required to assume the factual allegations of plaintiff’s complaint were true for purposes of determining the legal issues. Glen St. Andrews strongly denies the factual allegations of the complaint and will present its case in court at the appropriate time.”

Word of the most recent court decision spread widely, and by Tuesday morning, national news outlets from The Hill to the Washington Post had picked up the story. And this isn’t the first high-profile story regarding LGBT seniors and senior living communities. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported on a faith-based continuing care retirement community (CCRC) near St. Louis that turned two women away because their marriage didn’t fit with the community’s cohabitation policy.

Implications for the industry

Wetzel’s case, and the appeals court’s ruling, could have implications for senior living providers across the board.

In particular, senior living communities who fail to put a stop to discriminatory harassment of any kind may be at risk for future litigation, according to Karen Loewy, who represented Wetzel in court.

“The importance of the ruling is that senior living communities are now clearly on notice of their obligations to ensure equal housing opportunity for LGBT older adults, and that includes taking action to end discrimination and harassment by other residents,” Loewy told SHN.

And courts are increasingly becoming more receptive to claims of discrimination based on sexual orientation in other contexts, according to Greg Abrams, a Chicago-based partner at global law firm Faegre Baker Daniels.

“This latest development is consistent with the approach we are seeing elsewhere and one we would expect to continue,” he told SHN.

Already, some senior living providers and related organizations have adjusted their approach for LGBT seniors. For instance, the New York-based Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) has a training program for seniors housing and senior care providers called “SAGECare,” centered on LGBT cultural competency.

As of December, 2017, SAGE had trained approximately 20,000 providers, with more than 150 agencies receiving a SAGECare credential.

“This is a population that is very often invisible, either because people haven’t considered their needs or, what is often the case, is that they are afraid of encountering discriminatory behavior and bias, so they are closeted,” Tim Johnston, director of national projects at SAGE, told SHN in 2017. “The credential is a way for the service provider to distinguish themselves from others to say we’ve made a commitment to invest our resources and our staff time in this training because the [older LGBT population] is important to us.”