Nichols v. Michigan City Plant Planning Dept
OPINION AND ORDER granting 27 MOTION for Summary Judgment, and denying as moot 33 RULE 56 MOTION to Strike 31 Response to Motion Partially. Final Judgment is entered in favor of the Michigan City Plan Planning Department. James Nichols ie entitled to no relief on his complaint. All further settings in this action are hereby vacated. ***Civil Case Terminated. Signed by Chief Judge Philip P Simon on 8/1/2013. (kds)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF INDIANA
SOUTH BEND DIVISION
MICHIGAN CITY PLANT
Case No. 3:12-cv-042
OPINION AND ORDER
James Nichols was hired as a substitute janitor by Michigan City Plant Planning
Department in early January 2011, and a few weeks later, he was placed on a temporary
assignment at Springfield Elementary School. The posting was an uncomfortable mess
from the outset. He says that staff and students alike were hostile to him; according to
his allegations, they created messes for the sole purpose of making him clean them up,
treated him with constant suspicion, and on one occasion, called him an inflammatory
racial epithet. Finally, after a few weeks on the job, the Planning Department informed
Nichols that he was no longer needed at the school and ultimately declined to place him
on another assignment.
Nichols responded to this treatment by filing a lawsuit asserting Title VII claims
for racial harassment and discrimination.1 He primarily alleges that he was harassed and
In a subsequent filing, Nichols advised me that he wished to add a defamation claim to his
lawsuit, citing a position statement filed by the Planning Department in a subsequent EEOC proceeding.
(DE 16.) As the Planning Department correctly notes, even if I were inclined to consider it, this state law
claim is barred by principles of absolute immunity because the statement was made in the context of a
quasi-judicial proceeding. See Hartman v. Keri, 883 N.E.2d 774, 779-80 (Ind. 2008).
treated poorly by members of the Springfield Elementary staff, and that rather than
intervene, his supervisor dismissed him “under racially motivated circumstances.” The
case is now before me on the Planning Department’s summary judgment motion.
I can sympathize with Nichols to some degree. If you believe him, the staff at
Springfield Elementary seems to have treated him quite poorly. But professional
misconduct – even of the most egregious nature – isn’t Title VII harassment or
discrimination, at least not necessarily. It has to be motivated by some sort of racial bias.
And in this case, once I parse through the mistreatment that Nichols thinks was racially
motivated but doesn’t have any tangible basis for his belief, I’m left with a single racial
slur used by a non-supervising co-worker. And while that theoretically could be enough
to support a Title VII harassment claim (though as I’ll explain below, I actually don’t
actually think it is here), the fact is that he didn’t tell the Springfield Elementary principal
or his employer until it was much too late for them to do anything to remedy the
situation. That’s fatal to his lawsuit. Therefore, and for the reasons discussed below, the
Planning Department’s summary judgment motion (DE 27) is GRANTED.
Nichols began working for the Planning Department as a substitute custodian on
January 5, 2011. (DE 1-1 at 2). Nichols’ supervisors there were Doug Schroeder and
John Yeakey, both of whom are white. (DE 30-3 at 14). He was initially assigned to Joy
Elementary, where he worked for three days and was not used for a brief time thereafter.
(DE 30-3 at 4.) Nichols’ second assignment was to Springfield Elementary on January
19, 2011. (DE 30-3 at 4.)
As I alluded to above, things started to go wrong pretty much from the moment
that Nichols walked in the door. He alleges that when he arrived at the school he asked
two students and two teachers (I think – it’s a little unclear in the record whether it was
two teachers and two students, or whether it was two young teachers) where the janitor’s
closet was, but they falsely claimed not to know. (DE 30-3 at 6.) There is also a vague
suggestion that Bette Johnston, the food service manager at Springfield Elementary,
acted frightened towards him on multiple occasions. (DE 30-3 at 10.) Nichols also
claims that on his second day at the school, someone left a purse out, ostensibly with the
purpose of entrapping him into stealing it (DE 1-1 at 2-3; DE 30-3 at 15-17), and that
Johnston routinely left the cash register open when he was present (again, with the
implication that she was trying to bait him into stealing money). (DE 30-3 at 20-21.)
Nichols alleges that on his third day on the job, two staff members (including
Johnston) at Springfield Elementary threw food and garbage on the floor after he had
cleaned it. (DE 1-1 at 2.) He claims that he was called a “boy” by school personnel on
more than one occasion, which he believes was racially motivated. (DE 30-3 at 43.)
Perhaps most explicitly, he says that on a single occasion, Johnston or another cafeteria
worker (it’s a little unclear which) walked by him and called him “a black [racial
epithet].” (DE 30-3 at 22-23.) Notably, Nichols didn’t report that incident to the school
principal or his superiors at the Planning Department. (DE 30-3 at 25.)
Matters finally came to a head on February 7, 2011, when, according to Nichols,
he was harassed by Johnston, who claimed he had taken a shovel and then tried to give
him unwanted lunch trays. (DE 30-3 at 27-28.) After this dust up, Johnston went to
school principal Lisa Emshwiller to discuss Nichols’ behavior. (DE 30-6 at 1.)
Emshwiller then met with Nichols to discuss the concerns Johnston had raised; Nichols
explained how and why he believed Johnston had been harassing him. (DE 30-6 at 1-2.)
Notably, according to Nichols’s own account of the conversation, when he informed
Emshwiller that he had been called a racial epithet, the principal indicated that this was
the first she had heard of the allegation. (DE 30-3 at 32.) Following this meeting,
Emshwiller spoke with Nichols’ supervisors, Schroeder and Yeakey, who made the
decision to remove Nichols from his assignment at Springfield Elementary. (DE 30-5 at
1.) They claim that no decision had been made at that point with regard to whether
Nichols would be used as a substitute custodian in the future. (DE 30-4 at 3; DE 30-5 at
2-3.) In any event, the Planning Department never placed Nichols at another job site.
(DE 30-4 at 3-4.)
Nichols filed the pending complaint alleging race-based harassment and
discrimination. (DE 1.) Michigan City Plant Planning Department has since moved for
summary judgment.2 (DE 27.)
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). A genuine dispute about a material fact exists only “if the evidence
is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party.” Anderson
v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). In making this determination, I must
construe all facts and draw all reasonable inferences from the record in the light most
There is also a Rule 56 Motion to Strike pending. (DE 33.) However, my decision to grant
summary judgment is the same whether or not I consider the exhibits attached by that motion, so the
Motion to Strike is DENIED AS MOOT.
favorable to the nonmoving party. Id. at 255. But the nonmoving party is not entitled to
the benefit of “inferences that are supported by only speculation or conjecture.”
Argyropoulos v. City of Alton, 539 F.3d 724, 732 (7th Cir. 2008) (citations and quotations
Title VII Harassment
Nichols first contends that Michigan City Plant Planning Department harassed
him because of his race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (as amended). In
order to defeat summary judgment on this claim, he must point me to sufficient evidence
to show: “(1) the work environment must have been both subjectively and objectively
offensive; (2) his race must have been the cause of the harassment; (3) the conduct must
have been severe or pervasive; and (4) there must have been a basis for employer
liability.” Montgomery v. American Airlines, Inc., 626 F.3d 382, 390 (7th Cir. 2010)
(citing Chaney v. Plainfield Healthcare Ctr., 612 F.3d 908, 912 (7th Cir. 2010)).
Let’s set aside the racial epithet for a minute and look at the remaining alleged
misconduct he describes in his complaint. It’s probably fair to characterize this
mistreatment as subjectively and objectively offensive, and it’s certainly plausible that a
jury might find that it was severe or pervasive. The problem for Nichols is that there
doesn’t seem to be any evidence that it was racially motivated. With respect to a Title
VII harassment claim, “[t]he complained of conduct must have ... [a] racial character or
purpose.” See Hardin v. S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc., 167 F.3d 340, 345 (7th Cir. 1999)
(citing Malhotra v. Cotter & Co., 885 F.2d 1305, 1308 (7th Cir. 1989)); accord Vance v.
Ball State Univ., 646 F.3d 461, 470 (7th Cir. 2011). In other words, even severe or
pervasive conduct that’s subjectively and objectively offensive won’t support a Title VII
race-based harassment claim if there isn’t any indication that racial animosity is the
driving force behind it.
So does the conduct cited by Nichols have such a racial character or purpose? It’s
hard to see how it does. Being rude to a temporary janitor by not telling him where to go
or by making messes for him to clean up is deplorable conduct. The same goes for trying
to bait him into stealing a purse or money from the cash register. I’m certainly not
condoning this behavior. But there’s simply no indication that it was motivated by race.
To the contrary, it looks to me – if you believe Nichols – like a few members of the staff
at Springfield Elementary just took an immediate and intense disliking to him. They may
have acted completely unprofessionally towards him, but that’s not sufficient to show a
racial motivation as required under the applicable law. See Hardin, 167 F.3d at 345
(“Obviously, we agree with the district court that it is unfortunate that [the plaintiff] was
subjected to such [abusive] behavior. Nevertheless, we cannot conclude that these actions
constituted sexual or racial harassment.”); see also Luckie v. Ameritech Corp., 389 F.3d
708, 713 (7th Cir. 2004) (granting summary judgment where “[n]one of these [alleged
harassing] incidents are sufficiently connected to race so as to satisfy the second element
of the hostile environment analysis”).
That takes me to the incident alleged by Nichols in which either Johnston or
another cafeteria worker (it’s a bit unclear which one) called him the “n word.” That’s
very troubling on its face. The Seventh Circuit has suggested that even one incident can
be the basis for a Title VII harassment claim if it’s sufficiently severe – and specifically
if it involves the same inflammatory racial epithet at issue in this case. See Cerros v.
Steel Techns., Inc., 288 F.3d 1040, 1047 (7th Cir. 2002) (opining that a single incident
involving a racial epithet might be sufficient to support a Title VII harassment claim);
Rodgers v. Western-Southern Life Ins. Co., 12 F.3d 668, 675 (7th Cir. 1993) (holding
same with respect to two incidents); see also Smith v. Sheahan, 189 F.3d 529 (7th Cir.
1999) (holding the same with respect to a Title VII sex-based harassment claim).
But Nichols has two main problems. First and foremost, as I noted above, he
didn’t go to the principal or to his superiors at the Planning Department to inform them
of the incident. Indeed, the first time any of them became aware of the allegation was at
the meeting a few days later in which Nichols was told he was no longer needed at the
school. That’s important because neither Johnston nor the other cafeteria worker were
Nichols’s supervisor. As a recent Supreme Court decision recently clarified, a supervisor
for Title VII harassment purposes is someone who has “the authority to effect a tangible
change in a victim’s terms or conditions of employment.” Vance v. Ball State Univ., 133
S. Ct. 2434, 2448 (2013). Here, Nichols has pointed me to zero evidence that Johnston
or the unidentified cafeteria worker who (he says) called him a racial slur had the power
to change the terms or conditions of his employment – and indeed, I suspect that’s
probably due to the fact that a school’s cafeteria services manager generally doesn’t have
the authority to hire and fire janitors.
The distinction between supervisors and non-supervising co-workers makes a
world of difference in this case. Courts are much more willing to impose vicarious
liability on an employer for harassment when the offender is the plaintiff’s supervisor.
Id. at 2441. When it’s just an ordinary co-worker, however, an employer will only be
liable for harassment “if the employer was negligent with respect to the offensive
behavior.’” Id.; accord Cerros, 288 F.3d at 1045.
And there’s the rub for Nichols. How could Springfield Elementary or the
Planning Department be negligent in stopping the continued use of racial slurs (and
similar outrageous conduct) if the people up the chain of command didn’t know that was
going on until they had already decided to remove Nichols from the job site? Obviously
they couldn’t. Now, it’s possible that Nichols could argue that he was removed in
retaliation for complaining about the racial epithet. But he hasn’t brought that type of
claim. He’s asserting a harassment claim against his employer. And there’s just no
evidence that – with respect to the sole alleged incident clearly involving racial animus –
his employer was even aware of his co-workers’ purported misconduct, much less that it
was negligent in preventing it. Summary judgment is warranted on the claim for this
That’s not all. Even severe race-based harassment must do more than offend the
victim. It instead must be “so severe or pervasive that it alters the conditions of the
plaintiff’s employment.” Thompson v. Memorial Hosp. of Carbondale, 625 F.3d 394, 401
(7th Cir. 2010) (emphasis added); accord Dear v. Shinseki, 578 F.3d 605, 611 (7th Cir.
2009). In this case, Nichols hasn’t pointed me to any facts indicating that the single –
and seemingly offhand – epithet fundamentally altered the conditions of his employment.
Instead, it seems like just another example of his (generally non-racially motivated)
alleged mistreatment by the staff at Springfield Elementary, and especially Johnston,
whom Nichols portrays as taking an intense – and probably irrational, if you believe his
allegations – dislike to him.
At the end of the day, the bottom line is that Nichols hasn’t demonstrated that the
(alleged) one-time use of a racial epithet was so severe and so offensive in this particular
case that it fundamentally changed the terms of his employment. Nor has he shown that
Springfield Elementary or the Planning Department knew that their employees were
harassing him but failed to stop the mistreatment. He needed to do both of those if he
wanted his lawsuit to go to trial. Summary judgment is the time in the litigation process
where a party needs to lay its cards on the table and tell me how its going to prevail on its
claims, assuming the jury believes its evidence. See Siegel v. Shell Oil Co., 612 F.3d
932, 937 (7th Cir. 2010) (“Summary judgment is the ‘put up or shut up’ moment in a
lawsuit.”). Therefore, summary judgment is appropriate on his Title VII harassment
Title VII Discrimination
Now on to the discrimination claim. Nichols doesn’t really spend much time
explaining this theory; indeed, he mostly just says that he was discriminated against
without identifying the facts that might support the allegation. Presumably he thinks that
either Springfield Elementary told him not to come back because he was AfricanAmerican, or the Planning Department refused to staff him on additional temporary jobs
for the same reason, or perhaps a bit of both.
Given that vagueness and paucity, I’m not inclined to spend much time on this
claim. It should suffice to say, Nichols doesn’t come close to demonstrating that he has a
viable Title VII discrimination claim. “Under the direct3 method [of proving
discrimination], a plaintiff must come forward either with direct or circumstantial
The alternative to the “direct method.” is the “indirect method,” which generally shifts the burden
of proof back to a defendant-employer if the plaintiff can show (among other things) that another employee
not in his or her class was treated more favorably than he or she was. See Plair v. E.J. Brach & Sons, Inc.,
105 F.3d 343, 347 (7th Cir. 1997). This approach is inapplicable in this case because Nichols doesn’t
allege that he was treated different than any other employee.
evidence that ‘points directly to a discriminatory reason for the employer’s action.’” See
Burks v. Wis. Dep’t of Transp., 464 F.3d 744, 750 n.3 (7th Cir. 2006). Nichols just hasn’t
done that here. He’s pointed me to nothing concrete showing that his race motivated
Springfield Elementary’s decision to tell him not to return to the school, or the Planning
Department’s decision not to staff him on another job. Indeed, it seems pretty much
undisputed that Nichols was removed from Springfield Elementary because he was
involved in a number of confrontations with the school’s staff members, and the Planning
Department didn’t place him on another job site because of the problems he had at the
It very well might be the case that Nichols didn’t do anything to warrant the
mistreatment by the Springfield Elementary staff, and if that’s the case, it’s especially
unfortunate that the Planning Department decided not to staff him on additional projects.
But getting a raw deal isn’t the same thing as getting a raw deal because you’re a
member of a protected class. Nichols needed to point me to evidence showing that the
latter is what happened if he wanted to get a discrimination claim past the summary
judgment stage, and he simply didn’t do that. Therefore, summary judgment is
warranted on that claim as well.
For the foregoing reasons, the court GRANTS the pending Motion for Summary
Judgment (DE 27) in its entirety. Because this ruling disposes of all the issues in this
case, the clerk shall ENTER FINAL JUDGMENT in favor of the Michigan City Plant
Planning Department stating that James Nichols is entitled to no relief on his complaint.
The clerk shall treat this civil action as TERMINATED. All further settings in this
action are hereby VACATED. Finally, for the reasons noted above, the pending Motion
to Strike (DE 33) is DENIED AS MOOT.
ENTERED: August 1, 2013.
s/ Philip P. Simon
PHILIP P. SIMON, CHIEF JUDGE
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
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