Eric Paasewe v. Action Group, Inc.
Per Curiam OPINION filed : we REVERSE the district court's judgment and REMAND for further proceedings, pursuant to FRAP 34(a)(2)(C), decision not for publication. Ralph B. Guy , Jr., Circuit Judge; Martha Craig Daughtrey, Circuit Judge and Helene N. White, Circuit Judge.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR FULL-TEXT PUBLICATION
File Name: 13a0653n.06
UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT
ERIC K. PAASEWE,
ACTION GROUP, INC.,
Jul 17, 2013
DEBORAH S. HUNT, Clerk
ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED
STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR
THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF
BEFORE: GUY, DAUGHTREY, and WHITE, Circuit Judges.
PER CURIAM. Plaintiff Eric K. Paasewe, proceeding pro se, appeals the district court’s
grant of summary judgment in favor of his former employer, Action Group, dismissing Paasewe’s
claims that he was subjected to a racially hostile work environment and terminated in retaliation for
engaging in protected conduct, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII),
42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e–2(a) and 2000e-3(a). Because disputed issues of material fact preclude
summary judgment, we REVERSE and remand for further proceedings.1
Paasewe, who is of African origin, worked as a grinder for Action Group, an equipment
manufacturer, from July 2008 until December 2008. In his affidavit,2 Paasewe asserted that
harassment occurred at his job from the start. Several supervisors and employees remarked to him
This case has been referred to us pursuant to Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 34(a)(2)(C). Upon
examination, we unanimously agree that oral argument is not needed.
Paasewe submitted a notarized response to Action Group’s summary judgment motion, which the district court
treated as an affidavit.
a number of times that the car he drove to work was too expensive for a black man earning $10 an
hour, and asked him what he did outside of work to be able to drive such an expensive car. The
human resource director in the same vein questioned Paasewe everyday about “who he really is” and
his “true identity,” remarking that the company would have no choice but to get rid of Paasewe if
he did not disclose the truth. One week later, the human resource director falsely accused Paasewe
of sexually harassing a white female employee. That allegation, although subsequently retracted,
spread around the company and “destroy[ed]” his reputation.
In mid-August 2008, Paasewe went to work wearing a shirt in support of then-presidential
candidate Barack Obama. A white Action Group employee, Tim Seitz,3 called Paasewe “boy,” told
him not to wear the Obama shirt again, threatened to kill Paasewe and Obama if Obama won the
election, and remarked that Paasewe should take Obama back to Africa to vote for him.4 Although
an Action Group manager held a meeting with employees and issued Seitz a verbal warning that such
comments would not be tolerated, no further disciplinary action was taken. When Paasewe told
management that he was going to report the company if it refused to report Seitz to the police for his
threats, several supervisors threatened to fire Paasewe for absences he had in July, although the
human resource director informed them that she had excused those absences.
Contrary to Action Group’s assertions, Paasewe stated that Seitz did not apologize for the
racial remarks. Moreover, Seitz continued harassing and intimidating Paasewe at work. Shortly
after the staff meeting, Seitz made a second threat against Paasewe’s life, which Action Group’s
Paasewe alleges that Seitz was a supervisor, but we need not decide whether Seitz was in a supervisory role
for purposes of this appeal.
According to Action Group, Seitz told Paasewe that if Obama was elected president, “some redneck would
shoot him.” In his affidavit, Paasewe refuted this characterization of Seitz’s statement.
management ignored despite Paasewe’s complaint. Most of the time when Seitz walked past
Paasewe at work, he made racist remarks to him in a low voice and threatening gestures as though
he were shooting Paasewe. In September 2008, Paasewe learned from an African-American coworker that she had overheard Seitz tell several white employees that he could not wait for the
election to be over “to see if Obama [would] win [so] he can put the first balck [sic] man out on this
job[.]”5 Paasewe reported this ongoing harassment to Action Group management but nothing was
Paasewe’s allegations extend beyond Seitz, to Action Group’s upper management. In
September 2008, Action Group told all grinders to stay home for one day because there was no work
for them. However, while all the African-American employees stayed home, Action Group called
two white employees into work.
In response to Paasewe’s complaint of racial discrimination,
Action Group’s president directed the two white employees who had been called into work to miss
two days when other grinders reported to work.
Further, in response to the August 2008 Seitz incident, Action Group issued a policy that
prohibited political paraphernalia from the workplace. Nonetheless, the human resource director,
who is white, brought in pins and flyers supporting a white presidential candidate, John McCain, and
The district court incorrectly disregarded this allegation on that basis that it was “an unsworn statement which
would not be admissible at trial.” That Paasewe did not hear Seitz’s statement directly does not render it inadmissible
because, in considering a hostile-work environment claim, “the fact that a plaintiff learns second-hand of a racially
derogatory comment or joke by a fellow employee or supervisor can impact the work environment.” Jackson v. Quanex
Corp., 191 F.3d 647, 661 (6th Cir. 1999) (quoting Schwapp v. Town of Avon, 118 F.3d 106, 111 (2d Cir. 1997)
(allowing use of incidents of racially offensive remarks made outside the plaintiff’s presence to be considered in hostile
work environment claim)); see also Wanchik v. Great Lakes Health Plan, Inc., 6 F. App’x 252, 262 (6th Cir. 2001)
(unpublished) (crediting evidence that plaintiff heard rumors about co-workers harassing other women in assessing
whether the work environment was hostile); Carter v. Chrysler Corp., 173 F.3d 693, 701 & n.7 (8th Cir. 1999) (holding
that a hostile-work-environment claimant may introduce evidence of offensive men’s room graffiti she learned about
through hearsay during her employment). To the extent Seitz’s statement that the co-worker relayed to Paasewe bears
on the issue whether the work environment would reasonably have been perceived, and was perceived, as hostile or
abusive, the statement is not being offered for the truth of the matter asserted and thus is not inadmissible hearsay. See
Fed. R. Evid. 801(c).
distributed them to employees. According to Paasewe, white employees were allowed to support
McCain but black employees were not allowed to support Obama. When Paasewe complained about
this perceived inequity, both the human resource director and Action Group’s president, also white,
responded by telling him to stay out of the company’s business if he wanted to keep his job. Action
Group’s president threatened Paasewe: “[L]et me tell you something boy. . . . [Y]ou don’t know
what I am capable of doing to anyone who tr[ies] to destroy my company.” A few days later, the
human resource director gave McCain flyers to a black employee to pass out to “his community.”
In addition, the human resource director refused to sign and instructed others not to sign Paasewe’s
certificate of forklift training unless he agreed not to sue the company for “all the allegation[s]” he
had made against the company.
Paasewe sustained a back injury at work on December 5, 2008. He attempted to return to
work on December 16. Although the parties dispute the circumstances of Paasewe’s attempt to
provide a return-to-work slip on December 16, the company terminated him in early January 2009,
with his termination made retroactive to December 17, 2008, for insurance purposes.
In November 2009, Paasewe filed this Title VII action, alleging that he was subjected to a
racially hostile work environment and that he was retaliated against for engaging in protected
conduct. Action Group moved for summary judgment. Paasewe moved for judgment on the
pleadings. The district court granted Action Group’s motion and denied Paasewe’s motion, ruling
that Paasewe failed to establish a prima facie case as to both discrimination claims. Paasewe timely
moved for a new trial. The district court construed Paasewe’s motion as one for reconsideration and
denied it. Paasewe timely appealed.
“We review de novo the district court’s grant of summary judgment.” Hawkins v. AnheuserBusch, Inc., 517 F.3d 321, 332 (6th Cir. 2008). Summary judgment is proper “if the movant shows
that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a
matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). “In considering a motion for summary judgment, the district
court must construe the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving
party.” Hawkins, 517 F.3d at 332.
To establish a prima facie case of a racially hostile work environment, Paasewe must show
that: (1) he was a member of a protected class; (2) he was subjected to unwelcome racial
harassment; (3) the harassment was race-based; (4) the harassment unreasonably interfered with his
work performance “by creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment”; and (5) the
employer is liable. Barrett v. Whirlpool Corp., 556 F.3d 502, 515 (6th Cir. 2009).
There is no dispute that Paasewe belongs to a protected group based on his African
background and was subject to unwelcome harassment. On the question whether the harassment was
race-based, Action Group argues that Seitz’s comments, while allegedly racially motivated, were
politically motivated and not directed at Paasewe. However, this fails to view the evidence in the
light most favorable to the non-moving party. According to Paasewe, Seitz did not simply deride
his support for Obama, but called Paasewe “boy,” threatened his life, and told him that he should
take Obama back to Africa to vote for him. Further, Paasewe alleged that Seitz’s racial remarks and
threatening gestures continued after the August 2008 incident. Seitz’s use of the term “boy” in
reference to Paasewe and in context of his racially-charged statements about Obama are sufficient
evidence to permit a reasonable jury to conclude that Seitz’s conduct was race-based. See Ash v.
Tyson Foods, Inc., 546 U.S. 454, 456 (2006) (per curiam) (holding that use of a term like “boy”
could be probative of bias, but that the “speaker’s meaning may depend on various factors including
context, inflection, tone of voice, local custom, and historical usage”).
Turning to Paasewe’s other allegations, the company’s implementation of its rule against
political paraphernalia was not, in and of itself, race-based. However, Paasewe also alleged that the
human resource director singled him out for a false sexual harassment claim and questioned him
about his true identity; supervisors and employees repeatedly asked him how a black man earning
$10 an hour could afford the car he drove; and the company president called him “boy” and
threatened him in response to his complaint that unequal application of the political paraphernalia
rule amounted to racial discrimination. Cf. Clay v. UPS, Inc., 501 F.3d 695, 706 (6th Cir. 2007)
(“Conduct that is not explicitly race-based may be illegally race-based and properly considered in
a hostile-work-environment analysis when it can be shown that but for the employee’s race, he
would not have been the object of harassment.”). Based on the totality of these alleged incidents,
a reasonable jury could draw the inference that discriminatory animus extended to upper
management. Although there is evidence that points to a different conclusion, it is the jury’s role,
not ours, to weigh conflicting evidence. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255
To satisfy the fourth prima facie element that the harassment unreasonably interfered with
his work performance, Paasewe “must present evidence showing that under the totality of the
circumstances the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of [his]
employment and create an abusive working environment.” Clay, 501 F.3d at 707 (internal quotation
marks omitted); accord Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21 (1993). Factors relevant to this
determination include “the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is
physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably
interferes with an employee’s work performance.” Harris, 510 U.S. at 23.
Here, a reasonable jury could conclude that Seitz’s alleged harassment and intimidation of
Paasewe, coupled with Action Group’s unresponsiveness to Paasewe’s complaints regarding that
harassment and upper management’s remarks and conduct toward Paasewe, created a racially hostile
work environment. Contrary to Action Group’s characterization of Paasewe’s allegations, Seitz’s
conduct did not involve one isolated remark but repeated racially-charged threats against Paasewe’s
life most of the time he walked past him at work. See Hawkins, 517 F.3d at 333–34 (explaining that
summary judgment is inappropriate when a plaintiff alleges harassment that is “ongoing,”
“commonplace,” and “continuing”; and that when a plaintiff makes allegations of ongoing
harassment, the “inability to recount any more specific instances goes to the weight of [his]
testimony, a matter for the finder of facts” (internal quotation marks omitted)). Under the totality
of the circumstances, a reasonable jury could conclude that this conduct was more than a “mere
offensive utterance.” Harris, 510 U.S. at 23.
To satisfy the fifth element, employer liability, Paasewe must establish “that [his] employer
tolerated or condoned the [alleged conduct] or that the employer knew or should have known of the
alleged conduct and failed to take prompt remedial action.” Jackson, 191 F.3d at 659 (internal
quotation marks omitted). Even assuming that Action Group took reasonable, good-faith steps to
address the August 2008 Seitz incident by holding a meeting with employees and issuing a verbal
warning, Action Group took no action in response to Paasewe’s subsequent complaints about Seitz’s
conduct, and there are issues of material fact concerning the conduct of Action Group’s management
toward Paasewe. We therefore reject Action Group’s contention that summary judgment is proper
on the basis that it cannot be liable for the alleged racially hostile conduct against Paasewe.
To establish a prima facie case of retaliation under Title VII, Paasewe must show that: (1) he
engaged in protected conduct, (2) the employer knew that he had exercised his protected rights,
(3) the employer took an adverse employment action against him, and (4) there was a causal
connection between his protected activity and the adverse employment action. Fuhr v. Hazel Park
Sch. Dist., 710 F.3d 668, 674 (6th Cir. 2013). Paasewe alleged that he lodged complaints of racial
discrimination with Action Group’s management concerning Seitz’s racially hostile conduct. The
company fired him a few months later.
To establish a causal connection between these complaints and his termination, Paasewe
must proffer “evidence sufficient to raise the inference that [his] protected activity was the likely
reason for the adverse action.” Id. at 675 (internal quotation marks omitted). Although temporal
proximity alone is usually insufficient to establish a causal connection, “temporal proximity always
plays a role in establishing a causal connection; its significance depends on the context.” Id. “In
analyzing the facts in temporal proximity cases, we have always looked at the totality of the
circumstances to determine whether an inference of retaliatory motive could be drawn.” Vereecke
v. Huron Valley Sch. Dist., 609 F.3d 392, 401 (6th Cir. 2010). “[O]ur case law can fairly be
characterized as recognizing the possibility that, on a particular set of facts, extremely close temporal
proximity could permit an inference of retaliatory motive, but also recognizing that often evidence
in addition to temporal proximity is required to permit the inference.”6 Id. (citations omitted).
At the prima facie stage, Paasewe’s burden is “minimal,” Taylor, 703 F.3d at 339, which
means that he need not produce direct evidence of causation. Here, a reasonable jury could infer
retaliatory motive from the totality of the circumstances, including temporal proximity of only a few
months between Paasewe’s complaints and his termination; and the comments of the human resource
director and company president to the effect that if Paasewe wanted to keep his job, he should stay
out of the company’s business, and the president’s accompanying reference to Paasewe as “boy”
during that exchange. Although the president’s racially-charged remarks were not made in response
to Paasewe’s complaints about Seitz’s conduct, they were made in response to Paasewe’s complaint
that the company’s implementation of its political paraphernalia rule amounted to racial
discrimination, and a reasonable jury could conclude that they bear on the question whether the
company had a retaliatory motive to terminate Paasewe in response to his complaints about racial
discrimination at work.
Further, Paasewe has raised factual issues regarding Action Group’s proffered legitimate,
non-discriminatory reason for terminating Paasewe. See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411
U.S. 792, 802–05 (1973); Manzer v. Diamond Shamrock Chems. Co., 29 F.3d 1078, 1084 (6th Cir.
1994), abrogated on other grounds by Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., Inc., 557 U.S. 167 (2009), as
See also Taylor v. Geithner, 703 F.3d 328, 339 (6th Cir. 2013) (holding that “if there is a very close temporal
proximity, then no other evidence is needed”); Mickey v. Zeidler Tool & Die Co., 516 F.3d 516, 525 (6th Cir. 2008)
(“W here an adverse employment action occurs very close in time after an employer learns of a protected activity, such
temporal proximity between the events is significant enough to constitute evidence of a causal connection for the
purposes of satisfying a prima facie case of retaliation.”); Nguyen v. City of Cleveland, 229 F.3d 559, 566–67 (6th Cir.
2000) (noting that “previous cases that have permitted a prima facie case to be made based on the proximity of time have
all been short periods of time, usually less than six months” (internal quotation marks omitted)).
recognized in Geiger v. Tower Auto., 579 F.3d 614, 621 (6th Cir. 2009). Action Group asserts that
after Paasewe’s December 5, 2008 injury at work, he attempted to return to work on December 16,
but, when asked for a required return-to-work slip, he told the human resource director that he was
going to retrieve it from his car and never returned. The company then terminated him in early
January 2009, with his termination made retroactive to December 17, 2008. According to Action
Group, had Paasewe brought the requested slip, he would have been allowed to return to work.
Paasewe, however, disputed Action Group’s version of this incident. In his affidavit,
Paasewe asserts that when he attempted to obtain a return-to-work slip on December 16, the human
resource director told him not to return to work until she called him because he was under “some
kind of investigation,” the details of which she never told him. Paasewe obtained a return-to-work
slip that same day from a chiropractor with a temporary restriction on heavy lifting, which he
attached as an exhibit to his affidavit. However, the human resource director did not call him, and,
shortly after, Paasewe found out that he had been terminated. Where there are different accounts of
what transpired, neither of which is belied by “objective evidence in the record,” Coble v. City of
White House, 634 F.3d 865, 869 (6th Cir. 2011), summary judgment is inappropriate.
For the foregoing reasons, we REVERSE the district court’s judgment and remand for further
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