“Coolio” Hair Comment Insufficient to Make Out Race-Based Hostile Work Environment, Court Holds

In Johnson v. Auto Handling Corporation et al, 2023 WL 5627071 (N.D. Ind. August 30, 2023), the court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s claim of a race-based hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Among other things, plaintiff alleged that an employee addressed plaintiff by saying “hey look, it’s Coolio”, in an apparent reference to plaintiff’s hair.

In explaining that this (along with other facts alleged by plaintiff) was insufficient, the court explained:

Johnson primarily relies on the Coolio comment as the basis for his hostile work environment claim. This comment alone cannot create a hostile work environment, because “one utterance alone does not create an objectively hostile work environment.” Smith v. Ne. Ill. Univ., 388 F.3d 559, 567 (7th Cir. 2004).
Seeming to understand the inadequacy of the Coolio comment, Johnson also mentions other incidents, including the Colin Kaepernick comment, the references to a “drug deal gone bad,” and the “gossip” on the yard. There are several problems with hanging a hostile work environment claim on these comments. First, none of them were directed at Johnson. Although racial comments do not always have to be stated directly to a plaintiff to create an objectively hostile work environment, see Gates v. Bd. of Educ. of the City of Chicago, 916 F.3d 631, 638–39 (7th Cir. 2019), remarks stated directly to the plaintiff weigh heavier than when a plaintiff hears them secondhand. Dandy v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 388 F.3d 263, 271 (7th Cir. 2004).

But even if these comments were racist, they don’t meet any other legal requirement for a hostile work environment claim. The comments were “relatively isolated.” See Saxton, 10 F.3d at 533. They are also not severe; the law treats these kinds of comments very differently from epithets like the n-word, for instance. Cerros v. Steel Techs., Inc., 288 F.3d 1040, 1047 (7th Cir. 2002). There is nothing physically threatening or humiliating about the comments. Finally, there is no evidence that the comments unreasonably interfered, or even affected, Johnson’s work performance.

Tumbleson need not be given an award for his conduct. His comments made Johnson understandably uncomfortable. But none of his comments, separately or collectively, created a legally actionable hostile work environment. Defendants are entitled to summary judgment on this claim.

The court additionally held that plaintiff was unable to show that there was a “pattern and practice” of discrimination, and concluded that there was no evidence that plaintiff “was terminated for any reason other than his work performance.”

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