On Tuesday, an appeals court heard arguments in what could potentially be a landmark case on housing discrimination in suburban Chicago.
According to The New York Times, the suit was filed by 70-year old Marsha Wetzel.
Wetzel, a lesbian, moved to the Glen Saint Andrew Living Community outside of Chicago in 2013, following the death of her long-time partner. There, Wetzel was repeatedly harassed. One resident told her that “homosexuals will burn in hell.” Others purportedly assaulted her.
Incidents mentioned in Wetzel’s suit range from verbal abuse to an outright attack. The elderly woman says another resident used a walker to batter Wetzel’s scooter, toppling her from the vehicle and sending her flying toward concrete.
Attorneys for Wetzel are suing Glen Saint Andrew Living Community itself, claiming the collective’s administrators failed in their duty to maintain a safe living environment.
The litigation is being overseen by a three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. Tuesday’s arguments marked a year since the case was dismissed by another judge, who said Wetzel hadn’t shown that Saint Andrew’s administrators themselves displayed “any discriminatory animus, motive or intent.”
If, writes the Times, the 7th Circuit revives the lawsuit, it could set a groundbreaking new precedent – that Fair Housing Act protections apply to LGBT tenants, too, shielding them from abuse by neighbors.
But a lawyer for the housing community, quoted by the Times, says the incidents involving Wetzel are being spun far out of proportion. The harassment and assault-by-walker, explains attorney Lisa Hausten, arose 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 Hausten.
That’s not how Wetzel saw it, the 70-year old woman’s lawyer said, arguing that she lived in constant fear for her physical well-being.
“I felt scared and helpless when the people in charge at Glen St. Andrew would not protect me, but the idea that they don’t think they have to protect anyone is shocking,” said Wetzel in a statement. “The elderly deserve to be treated with respect and to feel safe no matter who they are or who they loved and I’m going to fight for us.”
An article covering the case in the Chicago Tribune showed judges at an impasse. Judge David Hamilton, for one, sounded skeptical that the onus for Wetzel’s degradation could be foisted upward to Glen Saint Andrew’s administration, while Judge Diane Wood seemed considerably more sympathetic.
Explaining that nobody is accusing the community’s administrators of condoning the abuse, Wood said it may be possibly they simply “shrugged their shoulders” as it occurred.