Wetzel filed suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois alleging St. Andrew failed to ensure a non-discriminatory living environment and retaliated against her for complaining about sex-based harassment, each in violation of the FHA. St. Andrew and the other defendants moved for dismissal, contending that the FHA does not make a landlord accountable for failing to stop tenant-on-tenant harassment unless the landlord’s inaction was animated by discriminatory animus. They also contended that Wetzel’s retaliation claim failed because it lacked an allegation that the defendants were motivated by discriminatory animus. The district court agreed with the defendant’s arguments and dismissed both the harassment claim and retaliation claim.
The appellate court reversed. Citing one of their previous decisions, the court stated that discrimination based on sexual orientation qualifies as discrimination based on sex under Title VII and applies with equal force under the FHA. It also determined that Wetzel’s allegations demonstrated that the harassment she allegedly suffered was severe or pervasive enough to interfere with her enjoyment of her dwelling.
The court then analyzed whether there was a basis to impute liability to St. Andrew for the hostile housing environment under the FHA. Acknowledging that the text of the FHA does not spell out a test for landlord liability, the court found that both Title VII (which governs discrimination in employment) and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (which is meant to eliminate sex-based discrimination from education) were analogous anti-discrimination statutes, and determined that the Supreme Court’s interpretation of those statutes established that Wetzel’s claim against St. Andrew was covered under the FHA.
The court rejected St. Andrew’s contention that because there is no agency or custodial relationship between a landlord and tenant, it had no duty to protect Wetzel from discriminatory harassment. It made clear that the duty not to discriminate in housing conditions encompasses the duty not to permit known harassment on protected grounds (i.e., common areas of the building). It stated that liability against a landlord attaches when it has available remedial tools that it could apply to deter the harassment, but fails to deploy them. St. Andrew, for instance, could have evicted any tenants that interfered with the peaceful use and enjoyment of the community by other tenants or suspended privileges for tenants who failed to abide by its anti-harassment policies. Instead, St. Andrew allegedly took a “blame-the-victim” approach, subjecting it to liability. The court also found that, contrary to St. Andrew’s contention, the FHA does not require that a plaintiff allege discriminatory animus to state a claim for retaliation. Accordingly, it held that Wetzel had stated both a hostile-housing environment claim and retaliation claim under the FHA.