On June 19, 2014, the 7thCircuit affirmed summary judgment in a Title VII harassment and discharge case. Nichols v. Michigan City Plant Planning Dept., No. 13-2893 (7th Cir.) June 19, 2014. The 7th Circuit held that the plaintiff did not provide sufficientevidence of a hostile work environment. Employers are prohibited from requiring employees to work in a discriminatorily hostile or abusive work environment. To succeed on a hostile work environment claim, an employee must establish that: (1) the work environment was both subjectivelyand objectively offensive; (2) the harassment was based on membership in a protected class; (3) the conduct was severe or pervasive; and (4) there is a basis for employer liability. The question is whether the conduct was so severe or pervasive that it altered the conditions of the employment relationship. The court examines the totality of the circumstances, including: (1) the frequency of the conduct; (2) the degree to which the conduct would seem offensive to a reasonable person; (3) whether it is physically threatening or humiliating conduct as opposed to verbal abuse; (4) whether it unreasonably interferes with the employee’s work performance; and (5) whether the conduct was directed at the victim.
InNichols, a co-worker referred to the plaintiff as a “black n—-r.” However, the 7th Circuit stated that, “one utterance of the n-word has not generally been held to be severe enough to rise to the level of establishing liability.” Since the one-time use of a racial epithet is not severe enough to establish liability, the plaintiff must show that the totality of the incidents of harassment satisfies the criterion for workplace harassment. The 7th Circuit concluded thatthe conduct was not severe or pervasive enoughto support the plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim.
The 7th Circuit also found that the employment termination did not violate Title VII. The plaintiff presented a “cat’s paw” theory of liability, where a non-decision-maker who is motivated by a discriminatory animus causes the decision-maker’s adverse employment action. To succeed on a “cat’s paw” claim, the plaintiff must establish that: (1) the non-decision-maker harbored a discriminatory animus against him; and (2) the non-decision-maker was a proximate cause of the employment termination. InNichols, the 7th Circuit concluded that the input of the non-decision-maker was not the proximate cause of the employment termination due to non-discriminatory factors that lead to the termination.