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Impact

Federal Court Propels Case Of Lesbian Claiming Abuse in Senior Housing

An Illinois senior living facility will head to court after a three-judge panel ruled it could be held responsible for allowing residents and staff to abuse a lesbian resident.

Residents at Glen Saint Andrew Living Community in Niles, Ill. called Marsha Wetzel a “fucking dyke,” “fucking faggot” and “homosexual bitch,” according to court documents. One resident slammed his walker into her scooter, knocking her off a ramp, while another bashed her wheelchair into a table, upturning it onto Wetzel. She suffered a blow to the back of the head from an unknown assailant.

The abuse drove her into hiding in her room, she says. Staff retaliated against her for reporting the assaults. One staffer slapped her across the face, court documents state.

“You get so scared, you can’t sleep, you can’t eat,” Wetzel says in a video made by Lambda Legal, who is representing her. “You don’t want to take a shower. You don’t want to get dressed. You don’t want to go in the hall. When is it going to stop? I look out the window, I’ve got a cemetery out there. That’s when I’ll stop being made fun of because I’m gay.”

Wetzel moved into Glen Saint Andrew after her partner of 30 years died. After she disclosed that relationship, residents and staff started harassing her, she claims.

Wetzel previously filed a suit against the facility in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. The court dismissed her case, claiming that Wetzel hadn’t proved staff intentionally discriminated against her.

Glen Saint Andrew argued that as a landlord, it could not be held responsible for its tenants’ actions. But on Monday, the  U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals said that argument fell short, citing severe and pervasive threats and abuse against Wetzel, not just from tenants but from staff as well.  

“For 15 months, she was bombarded with threats, slurs, derisive comments about her family, taunts about a deadly massacre, physical violence, and spit,” the ruling states. “In this case, Wetzel has alleged that while the management defendants sat on their hands, residents’ harassment confined her to her room for prolonged stretches.”

The judges suggested that if Wetzel’s claims of harassment and abuse went to trial, she may prove that Glen Saint Andrew denied her services she paid for by making it impossible to access them safely.

“This is a tremendous victory for Marsha,” said Karen Loewy, Lambda Legal senior counsel. “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.”

Advocates hope that a win for Wetzel in court would affirm LGBTQ tenant protections under the Fair Housing Act, giving her case added national importance.  

Wetzel’s ruling comes on the heels of another reported case of discrimination in LGBTQ senior housing. In that case, a lesbian couple is alleging they were denied housing in St. Louis because of their sexual orientation.

Glen Saint Andrew did not respond to a request to comment by press time.

Image via Lambda Legal

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