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Wetzel v. Glen St. Andrew Living Community, LLC

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

August 27, 2018

Marsha Wetzel, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Glen St. Andrew Living Community, LLC, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued February 6, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 16 C 7598 - Samuel Der-Yeghiayan, Judge.

          Before Wood, Chief Judge, and Kanne and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

          WOOD, CHIEF JUDGE.

         Within months of her arrival at Glen St. Andrew Living Community ("St. Andrew"), Marsha Wetzel faced a torrent of physical and verbal abuse from other residents because she is openly lesbian. Time and again, she implored St. Andrew's staff to help her. The staff's response was to limit her use of facilities and build a case for her eviction.

         Wetzel sued St. Andrew, alleging that it failed to provide her with non-discriminatory housing and that it retaliated against her because of her complaints, each in violation of the Fair Housing Act (FHA or Act), 42 U.S.C. §§ 3601-3619. St. Andrew insists that the Act affords Wetzel no recourse, because it imposes liability only on those who act with discriminatory animus, an allegation Wetzel had not expressly made of any defendant. The district court agreed and dismissed Wetzel's suit. We read the FHA more broadly. Not only does it create liability when a landlord intentionally discriminates against a tenant based on a protected characteristic; it also creates liability against a landlord that has actual notice of ten-ant-on-tenant harassment based on a protected status, yet chooses not to take any reasonable steps within its control to stop that harassment. We therefore reverse the district court's grant of St. Andrew's motion to dismiss and remand for further proceedings.

         I

         After her partner of 30 years died, Wetzel moved into St. Andrew, a residential community for older adults; she continues to live there today. Her tenancy, presumably like that of St. Andrew's other residents, is governed by a form Tenant's Agreement ("Agreement"). Beyond a private apartment, the Agreement guarantees three meals daily served in a central location, access to a community room, and use of laundry facilities. It conditions tenancy at St. Andrew on refraining 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." It also requires compliance with the "Tenant Handbook," which may "be amended from time to time." The Agreement authorizes St. Andrew to institute eviction proceedings against a tenant in breach, and if St. Andrew prevails, the breaching tenant must also reimburse St. Andrew for its attorney's fees. (Indeed, the Agreement requires reimbursement of St. Andrew's fees related to an alleged violation or breach even if suit has not been instituted.)

         After arriving at St. Andrew, Wetzel spoke openly to staff and other residents about her sexual orientation. She was met with intolerance from many of them. The following is just a sample of what Werzel has alleged that she endured. At this early stage of the litigation, we accept her account as true, recognizing that St. Andrew will have the right to contest these assertions at a trial.

         Beginning a few months after Werzel 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 Werzel 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 [Werzel's] tits off." Herr was the primary, but not sole, culprit. Elizabeth Rivera told Werzel that "homosexuals will burn in hell."

         There was physical abuse too. Wetzel depends on a motorized scooter. Herr at one time rammed his walker into Wetzel's scooter forcefully enough to knock her off a ramp. Rivera bashed her wheelchair into a dining table that Wetzel occupied, flipping the table on top of Wetzel. In yet another incident, Wetzel was struck in the back of the head while alone in the mailroom; the blow was hard enough to push her from her scooter, and she suffered a bump on her head and a black eye. She did not see the assailant, but the person said "homo" when attacking her. Following this mugging, Herr taunted Wetzel, rubbing his head and saying "ouch." Wetzel also had two abusive trips in the elevator. During the first, Rivera spat on her and hurled slurs. During the second, Werzel, Herr, and another resident, Audrey Chase, were together in the elevator when Herr again hit Werzel's scooter with his walker.

         Werzel routinely reported the verbal and physical abuse to St. Andrew's staff, including Carolyn Driscoll, Sandra Cubas, and Alyssa Flavin (the "management defendants"). Werzel's initial complaints won her a brief respite, prompting her to draft a thank-you note. But the management defendants, among whom we need not distinguish for purposes of this appeal, otherwise were apathetic. They told Werzel not to worry about the harassment, dismissed the conduct as accidental, denied Wetzel's accounts, and branded her a liar. Werzel's social worker accompanied her to one meeting about the harassment; despite that, the managers denounced Wetzel as dishonest.

         Had the management defendants done nothing but listen, we might have a more limited case. But they took affirmative steps to retaliate against Wetzel for her complaints. For example, they relegated Wetzel to a less desirable dining room location after she notified them about being trampled by Rivera. Following other complaints, they barred her from the lobby except to get coffee and they halted her cleaning services, thus depriving her of access to areas specifically protected in the Agreement. They falsely accused Wetzel of smoking in her room in violation of St. Andrew's policy. Early one morning, two staff members woke Wetzel up and again accused her of smoking in her room. When she said that she had been sleeping, one of them slapped her across the face. One month, Wetzel did not receive the customary rent-due notice, though other tenants did. She remembered to pay on time, but she had to pry a receipt from management.

         In response, Werzel changed her daily routine. She ate meals in her room, forgoing those included as part of the Agreement. She stopped visiting the third floor of St. Andrew, where Herr lived. She did not use the laundry room at hours when she might be alone. And she ...


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