STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
William Stucke, et al.,
Thomas Chevrolet, Cadillac d/b/a
Thomas Automotive Group, Inc., et al.,
Filed July 6, 1999
Affirmed in part and remanded in part
Washington County District Court
File No. C1974921
James C. Wicka, Jeffrey M. Ellis, Messerli & Kramer P.A., 1800 Fifth Street Towers, 150 South Fifth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for appellants)
Dale M. Wagner, Robin Ann Williams, Bassford, Lockhart, Truesdell & Briggs, P.A., 3550 Multifoods Tower, 33 South Sixth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402-3787 (for respondents)
Considered and decided by Short, Presiding Judge, Peterson, Judge, and Schultz, Judge.
Appellants challenge the district court’s grant of summary judgment, arguing that the district court erred by dismissing their racially-hostile work environment, retaliatory discharge, aiding and abetting of statutory violations, and defamation claims. We affirm in part and remand in part.
Respondents Thomas Automotive Group (Thomas Group) owned a Chevrolet/Cadillac dealership and a Pontiac, Buick, GMC dealership. The Thomas Group hired appellants William Stucke and Robert Arnold in 1994 as car salesmen; both men are Caucasian. Respondent James Thomas, an African-American, was president of the Thomas Group. Mike Morris, also an African-American, was vice president of the Thomas Group, supervised both appellants, who had good work histories and minimal performance issues. In 1996, Morris promoted appellants to management positions.
In July 1997, appellants complained to respondent Thomas that respondent Morris was behaving erratically and had made racist comments. Shortly after that complaint, Arnold’s employment was terminated. Appellants maintain that Arnold was terminated for "stirring the pot." Respondents maintain that Arnold was terminated because appellant Stucke complained that Arnold was not doing his work and that Stucke reported to Thomas that he had been "carrying" Arnold for a year, and because of the financial difficulties the dealership faced. Appellant Stucke was offered a job with the remaining Thomas dealership, which he accepted but then never began. Respondent Morris was stripped of his responsibility for supervising managers and was told to work out of his home.
After respondent Arnold was fired, respondent Stucke’s attorney wrote a letter to the Thomas group demanding an investigation of the racial harassment charges. Stucke claims he was stripped of his management position because of the letter. Respondents counter that Stucke’s absenteeism coupled with the losses at the dealership caused the change in Stucke’s status from manager to salesperson.
This appeal arises from the district court’s grant of summary judgment. Appellants Robert Arnold and William Stucke claim that they were retaliated against in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) and the federal Civil Rights Act of 1866 (§ 1981) when they complained of racial harassment by their supervisor, respondent Mark Morris. Additionally, appellants charged that the individual respondents were liable for aiding and abetting the statutory violations, and alleged common law defamation claims against each respondent. The district court dismissed all claims on summary judgment, holding that the racial comments in the work environment did not rise to the level of a hostile environment, and that there was no publication of the alleged defamatory statements and no damages. The court dismissed the retaliation claims without discussion.
A motion for summary judgment shall be granted when the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is not genuine issue of material fact and that either party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Minn. R. Civ. P. 56.03. "On appeal, the reviewing court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom judgment was granted." Fabio v. Bellomo, 504 N.W.2d 758, 761 (Minn. 1993) (citation omitted). Determination of a hostile work environment is a question of law. Brooms v. Regal Tube Co., 881 F.2d 412, 420 (7th Cir. 1989).
Hostile Work Environment
Appellants claim that respondent Morris’s conduct created a hostile work environment actionable under 42 U.S.C.§ 1981 and the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA). The MHRA prohibits racial discrimination that creates a hostile work environment. In employment discrimination cases, Minnesota uses the three-step McDonnell Douglas analysis which consists of a prima facie case, an answer, and a rebuttal. Minneapolis Police Dep't v. Minneapolis Comm'n on Civil Rights, 402 N.W.2d 125, 131 (Minn. App. 1987), aff'd, 425 N.W.2d 235 (Minn. 1988).
To establish a prima facie case of hostile work environment, an employee must prove, first, that he belongs to a protected group; second, that he was subjected to unwelcome racial harassment which had the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with the terms, conditions, or privileges of his employment; and, third, that the employer knew or should have known of the harassment in question and failed to take prompt action. Id. See also Williams v. Metropolitan Waste Control Comm'n, 781 F.Supp. 1424, 1426 (D. Minn. 1992) (applying same criteria).
In this case, the first element of appellants’ prima facie case is undisputed. But the trial court found that appellants did not establish the second element of the prima facie case because nearly all of the alleged comments were directed at people other than appellants.
A hostile work environment claim fails where the discriminatory acts are against others, not against the plaintiffs. Childress v. City of Richmond, 134 F.3d, 1167, 1207 (4th Cir. 1998). Because appellants do not have standing to sue for alleged discrimination against others, the court must determine if Morris’s conduct constitutes significant hostile conduct towards appellants.
Of the comments attributed to respondent Morris, only one was directed to appellants. Appellant Arnold alleges while he and appellant Stucke were visiting in the lounge, respondent Morris walked by and said "the two white boys plotting against the black men again" giggled and walked away. Appellant Arnold, in his deposition, stated that the comment compelled he and Stucke to report respondent Morris to respondent Thomas. Appellants were offended by the comment, but, by appellants’ own admissions, this phrase was said only once, and neither of the appellants could comment on what respondent Morris might have meant by such comment. The utterance does not rise to the level of threat and the comment was, at most, out of the ordinary or odd, but not discriminatory.
Comments made in appellants’ presence were sporadic and part of casual conversation. Appellants learned of many comments through second-hand sources. See Johnson v. Bunny Bread Co., 646 F.2d 1250, 1257 (8th Cir. 1981) (holding that infrequent racial slurs, limited to casual conversations among employees, and not directed toward plaintiffs, while not to be condoned do not amount to civil rights violations); Manse v. Union Elec. Co., 961 F.Supp. 1296, 1304 (E.D. Mo. 1997) (holding hostile work environment claim failed as a matter of law where plaintiff did not hear official make racial statements or jokes but instead heard of this conduct from other African-American employees.); Williams, 781 F.Supp. at 1427 (holding mere utterance of words such as "sunshine" and "boy" did not constitute race discrimination).
Additionally, the record shows that appellants were unaware of any racial problems or of the existence of a hostile work environment until six months (Arnold) to a month (Stucke) before they made their claims. Neither appellant alleges that the comment interfered with his work in any way. On the contrary, appellant Stucke felt comfortable enough with respondent Morris that he discussed his plans to open his own car dealership. Both appellants admit that respondent Morris never called either of them any racist names. Appellants’ unawareness of any racial problems is contradictory to and undermines their claims of hostile work environment. Appellants cannot use other workers’ experiences to build a hostile work environment claim.
Appellants also attempt to support the hostile work environment claim with the fact that respondent Morris brought a gun to the workplace and showed it to appellants. However, neither appellant has asserted that respondent Morris threatened him or anyone else with the gun.
The next issue is whether the district court erred in granting summary judgment on appellants’ defamation claim. To be considered defamatory, a statement
must be communicated to someone other than the plaintiff, it must be false, and it must tend to harm the plaintiff’s reputation and to lower him in the estimation of the community.
Stuempges v. Parke, Davis & Co., 297 N.W.2d 252, 255 (Minn. 1980). The alleged defamatory statements were that (1) appellant Arnold was a poor performer and deserved to be fired; and (2) respondents Morris and Thomas defamed appellants by calling them thieves and incompetent managers who were personally responsible for ruining the dealership business. Appellants have brought forth very little evidence to show that these statements were made to others and have brought forth no evidence that such statements caused them harm. Without sufficient evidence of defamatory conduct, summary judgment is warranted.
Appellants contend the district court erred when it dismissed the retaliation claim. Because the district court did not address this issue in its findings of fact, conclusions of law and order, it is difficult for this court to address the propriety of the trial court’s decision. We therefore remand this issue to the district court for findings.
Appellants charge that respondents Thomas and Morris are individually liable for discrimination under the MHRA. But, because the record does not support a hostile work environment claim, this claim is moot. However, the district court should make findings on the issue concerning the retaliation claim.
Affirmed in part and remanded in part.[*] Retired judge of the district court, serving as judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.