7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment in Racial Harassment Case

On September 27, 2016, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in a lawsuit in which an African-American employee alleged that he experienced a hostile work environment, including a hangman's noose in his workspace, as well as race discrimination and retaliation.  Cole v. Board of Trustees of Northern Illinois University, No. 15-2305 (7th Cir. 9/27/2016).  He sued asserting violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII").  The plaintiff's hostile work environment claim failed because he did not establish a basis for employer liability for the alleged harassment.  Workplace harassment that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of employment is actionable under Title VII as a claim of hostile work environment.  To prove a claim for hostile work environment based on race, an employee must establish that: (1) he or she was subjected to unwelcome harassment; (2) the harassment was based on his or her race; (3) the harassment was severe or pervasive enough to alter the conditions of the employee's work environment by creating a hostile or abusive situation; and (4) there is a basis for employer liability.  In determining whether a work environment is sufficiently abusive to be actionable, courts consider whether the conduct is physically threatening or humiliating, and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance.

The noose satisfied the first and second elements required for a valid hostile work environment claim.  However, the plaintiff failed to present evidence to support the fourth element--a basis for employer liability.  Employers are strictly liable for supervisor harassment, but when non-managerial co-workers are responsible for the harassment, the employee must establish that the employer was negligent in discovering or remedying the harassment.  The 7th Circuit concluded that there was no basis for employer liability.   There was no evidence that a supervisor was responsible for the noose.  The employer promptly investigated the incident and took appropriate corrective action to prevent any reoccurrence.  Thus, the hostile work environment claim failed, despite the noose.

The plaintiff also claimed that he was subjected to disparate treatment because of his race in violation of Title VII when he was demoted.  But he offered no direct or circumstantial evidence of any racial motivation for the demotion or any racially discriminatory animus.  Moreover, a white employee was demoted at the same time and for the same reason.  

Lastly, the plaintiff alleged that he was subjected to unlawful retaliation for filing an ethics complaint about his work situation.  However, he did not specifically raise or oppose race discrimination or any other unlawful employment practice in his ethics complaint and, therefore, the required element of protected activity was not met.  And that was the end of the plaintiff's retaliation claim.