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Nichols v. Michigan City Plant Planning Department

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

June 19, 2014

JAMES NICHOLS, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
MICHIGAN CITY PLANT PLANNING DEPARTMENT, Michigan City Area Schools, Defendant-Appellee

Argued December 9, 2013

Page 595

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 596

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division. No. 12 CV 042 -- Philip P. Simon, Chief Judge.

For JAMES NICHOLS, Plaintiff - Appellant: Christopher Keleher, Attorney, KELEHER APPELLATE LAW GROUP, Chicago, IL.

For MICHIGAN CITY PLANT PLANNING DEPARTMENT, Michigan City Area Schools, Defendant - Appellee: Jacquelyn S. Pillar King, Attorney, CRIST, SEARS & ZIC, Munster, IN; Michael D. Sears, Attorney, SINGLETON, CRIST, AUSTGEN & SEARS, Munster, IN.

Before WILLIAMS, SYKES, and HAMILTON, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

Page 597

Williams, Circuit Judge

James Nichols sued his employer, the Michigan City Area Schools (" Michigan City" ), alleging two Title VII violations. First, Nichols claimed that Michigan City required him to work in a hostile work environment at a school where he was a temporary janitor. However, he does not provide sufficient evidence that demonstrates

Page 598

that the harassment he allegedly suffered was severe or pervasive. Second, he claimed that Michigan City fired him because of his race. Once again, Nichols does not show sufficient evidence that his alleged harasser, Bette Johnston, was a proximate cause of his firing because affidavits from Nichols's supervisors show that he would have been let go even if there was no feud between him and Johnston. After discovery, Michigan City moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted. The record on appeal supports summary judgment in favor of Michigan City, and we affirm the district court's judgment.

I. BACKGROUND

In January 2011, the Michigan City Area Schools (" Michigan City" ) hired James Nichols as a temporary, substitute janitor. Nichols first worked at Joy Elementary School without incident. Then he was sent to Springfield Elementary School as a replacement until a permanent janitor could be found for a recently retired janitor.

On his first day at Springfield Elementary, Nichols asked four employees where the janitor's closet was located. Unfortunately, none of them knew. After fifteen minutes of walking around, Nichols eventually found the closet. Later on, Nichols ran into the employees whom he had previously asked for help. When they saw that he found the room, they said to him, " Oh, you found it." Nichols believes that they said this in a mocking manner. Later that day, Nichols met Bette Johnston, the food service manager and his co-worker at Springfield Elementary. During their first meeting, Nichols claims that Johnston raised a towel, waived her hand as if she was scared of him, and mumbled something.

On Nichols's second day at Springfield, a purse was left unattended in an area Nichols was cleaning. It was never determined who owned the purse, but Nichols suspected it was a ruse designed to catch him in the act of stealing the purse. Nichols believes his co-workers tried to entrap him because he is African-American. Nichols alleges that on his third day, a teacher's aide pointed out his grandson and told Nichols not to speak with the child. The aide then, according to Nichols, stared at him during lunch. After lunch, Nichols cleaned the cafeteria floor and left to take out the trash, but when he came back, he found debris on the floor. He found this suspicious because no students were present when he left the room.

Nichols claims other incidents with racial undertones occurred as well. On one occasion, Nichols alleges that Johnston was walking with her assistant, and as they walked by, Johnston said to him, " You're a black n__r." When Nichols asked her what she said, Johnston responded that she was joking. On another occasion, Nichols alleges that Johnston was standing in the cafeteria with a group of school employees and while standing there he heard her say, " Where that boy at?" The group did not know that Nichols was within earshot, but he believes that the term was directed at him and was used in a racially derogatory manner.

On February 7, 2011, after an altercation between Johnston and Nichols, Principal Lisa Emshwiller asked Nichols's supervisors, Doug Schroeder and John Yeakey, to meet with her because she felt that Nichols was acting strangely. Emshwiller was the principal of Springfield Elementary, and Schroeder and Yeakey were maintenance foremen in the Plant Planning ...


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