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Janitor loses pro se complaint alleging discrimination

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals noted that it was a “close call” whether a man worked in a hostile work environment as a school temporary janitor, but judges found that he could not meet his legal burden to prove that he suffered severe or pervasive harassment based on his race.

James Nichols sued the Michigan City Area Schools pro se, alleging two Title VII violations: hostile work environment and that he was fired because  he is African-American. Nichols worked as a temporary janitor at Springfield Elementary and claimed that he was harassed by co-worker Bette Johnston. He alleged she made racial slurs toward him, acted scared of him, and she and other employees tried to bait him into stealing items from an unattended purse.

The school principal spoke with Nichols’ supervisors at the Plant Planning Department about concerns regarding Nichols’ “strange” behavior. The supervisors decided to remove Nichols’ from the school and told him if they had any other work, they would call, but they never did.

The District Court granted Michigan City’s motion for summary judgment in its entirety.

The 7th Circuit found Nichols’ hostile work environment claim failed because he did not provide sufficient evidence for a reasonable juror to conclude that he was subjected to harassing conduct that was severe or pervasive. He argued that Johnston’s alleged “black n----r” comment constituted severe harassment.

“… while referring to colleagues with such disrespectful language is deplorable and has no place in the workforce, one utterance of the n-word has not generally been held to be severe enough to rise to the level of establishing liability,” Judge Ann Claire Williams wrote.

Nichols can only succeed if the totality of the collection of allegedly harassing incidents triggers liability. “While it is a close call whether the conduct here is severe or pervasive, Nichols’ claim ultimately fails,” she wrote.

He never alleged that he was physically threatened and the alleged harassment didn’t interfere with his work performance. Finally, the judges concluded that a reasonable trier of fact couldn’t conclude that all of the allegedly harassing comments were directed at him.

And the judges held his claim that he was fired because of his race fared no better than his harassment claim. They found he did not provide enough evidence to survive summary judgment. Evidence was presented by the school that employees were concerned about his mental state and he acted strangely the day he was fired. In addition, the school was going to fill his job with a full-time janitor the next week, regardless of Nichols’ work performance.

Because he did not meet his legal burden, the 7th Circuit affirmed summary judgment in James Nichols v. Michigan City Plant Planning Department, Michigan City Area Schools, 13-2893.  
 

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  1. I don't agree that this is an extreme case. There are more of these people than you realize - people that are vindictive and/or with psychological issues have clogged the system with baseless suits that are costly to the defendant and to taxpayers. Restricting repeat offenders from further abusing the system is not akin to restricting their freedon, but to protecting their victims, and the court system, from allowing them unfettered access. From the Supreme Court opinion "he has burdened the opposing party and the courts of this state at every level with massive, confusing, disorganized, defective, repetitive, and often meritless filings."

  2. So, if you cry wolf one too many times courts may "restrict" your ability to pursue legal action? Also, why is document production equated with wealth? Anyone can "produce probably tens of thousands of pages of filings" if they have a public library card. I understand this is an extreme case, but our Supreme Court really got this one wrong.

  3. He called our nation a nation of cowards because we didn't want to talk about race. That was a cheap shot coming from the top cop. The man who decides who gets the federal government indicts. Wow. Not a gentleman if that is the measure. More importantly, this insult delivered as we all understand, to white people-- without him or anybody needing to explain that is precisely what he meant-- but this is an insult to timid white persons who fear the government and don't want to say anything about race for fear of being accused a racist. With all the legal heat that can come down on somebody if they say something which can be construed by a prosecutor like Mr Holder as racist, is it any wonder white people-- that's who he meant obviously-- is there any surprise that white people don't want to talk about race? And as lawyers we have even less freedom lest our remarks be considered violations of the rules. Mr Holder also demonstrated his bias by publically visiting with the family of the young man who was killed by a police offering in the line of duty, which was a very strong indicator of bias agains the offer who is under investigation, and was a failure to lead properly by letting his investigators do their job without him predetermining the proper outcome. He also has potentially biased the jury pool. All in all this worsens race relations by feeding into the perception shared by whites as well as blacks that justice will not be impartial. I will say this much, I do not blame Obama for all of HOlder's missteps. Obama has done a lot of things to stay above the fray and try and be a leader for all Americans. Maybe he should have reigned Holder in some but Obama's got his hands full with other problelms. Oh did I mention HOlder is a bank crony who will probably get a job in a silkstocking law firm working for millions of bucks a year defending bankers whom he didn't have the integrity or courage to hold to account for their acts of fraud on the United States, other financial institutions, and the people. His tenure will be regarded by history as a failure of leadership at one of the most important jobs in our nation. Finally and most importantly besides him insulting the public and letting off the big financial cheats, he has been at the forefront of over-prosecuting the secrecy laws to punish whistleblowers and chill free speech. What has Holder done to vindicate the rights of privacy of the American public against the illegal snooping of the NSA? He could have charged NSA personnel with violations of law for their warrantless wiretapping which has been done millions of times and instead he did not persecute a single soul. That is a defalcation of historical proportions and it signals to the public that the government DOJ under him was not willing to do a damn thing to protect the public against the rapid growth of the illegal surveillance state. Who else could have done this? Nobody. And for that omission Obama deserves the blame too. Here were are sliding into a police state and Eric Holder made it go all the faster.

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