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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