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Brailsford v. Wateree Cmty. Action, Inc.

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

June 17, 2015

Fredrica M. Brailsford, Plaintiff,
v.
Wateree Community Action, Inc.; James L. Coleman, Jr.; Ernestine Lowery; LaShonna Meagley; Joseph Davis; and Laurey Carpenter, in their professional and individual capacities, Defendants

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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          For Fredrica M Brailsford, Plaintiff: James Lewis Cromer, LEAD ATTORNEY, J Lewis Cromer and Associates, Columbia, SC; Ryan Kyle Hicks, LEAD ATTORNEY, Cromer and Mabry, Columbia, SC; William Michael Hemlepp, Jr, LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Offices of W. Michael Hemllepp, Jr., Columbia, SC.

         For Wateree Community Action, Inc., in their professional and individual capacities, James L Coleman, Jr, in their professional and individual capacities, Ernestine Lowery, in their professional and individual capacities, LaShonna Meagley, in their professional and individual capacities, Joseph Davis, in their professional and individual capacities, Laurey Carpenter, in their professional and individual capacities, Defendants: D L Dirk Aydlette, III, Robert Hayne Hodges, III, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Gignilliat Savitz and Bettis, Columbia, SC.

          OPINION

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         Kaymani D. West, United States Magistrate Judge.

          Report and Recommendation

         Plaintiff Fredrica Brailsford (" Brailsford" or " Plaintiff" ),[1] filed this action against her former employer, Wateree Community Action, Inc. (" Wateree" or " Defendant" ); James L. Coleman, Jr.; Ernestine Lowery; LaShonna Meagley; Joseph Davis; and Laurey Carpenter, in their professional and individual capacities on November 14, 2013.[2] ECF No. 1. The operative Second Amended Complaint includes the following claims against Wateree: (1) sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act; (2) Title VII Retaliation; (3) age discrimination; (4) violation of South Carolina Whistleblower Law; and (5) defamation. Plaintiff also brings a claim of civil conspiracy against the Individual Defendants. 2d Am. Compl., ECF No. 6. Jurisdiction over the federal claims is based on 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Jurisdiction over the state-law claims is based on the court's supplemental jurisdiction,

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28 U.S.C. § 1367. This matter is before the court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2) (D.S.C.) for a Report and Recommendation on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 33.

         Having considered the Motion; Plaintiff's Response, ECF No. 49; Defendants' Reply, ECF No. 53; and applicable law, the undersigned recommends that Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment be granted and this matter be ended.

         I. Plaintiff's Federal and S.C. Whistleblower Act Claims

         In response to Defendants' Motion, Plaintiff, through counsel, does not contest entry of summary judgment as to her claims for sex discrimination, age discrimination, retaliation, or violation of South Carolina's Whistleblower Law. See Pl.'s Resp. 7 (Title VII sex discrimination), 7-8 (retaliation), 8 (age discrimination), 9 (S.C. Whistleblower Act). Accordingly, it is recommended that summary judgment be granted as to Plaintiff's claims of sex discrimination, retaliation, age discrimination, and Violation of South Carolina Whistleblower Act (Causes of Action One through Four). Diversity jurisdiction does not exist. See 2d Am. Compl. ¶ ¶ 1-7 (indicating all parties reside in South Carolina). If this portion of the Report and Recommendation is adopted, all claims within the court's original jurisdiction will be ended.

         II. Supplemental Jurisdiction

         The court must then determine whether it should exercise supplemental jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a). " The district courts may decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over a claim under subsection (a) if- . . . (3) the district court has dismissed all claims over which it has original jurisdiction; or (4) in exceptional circumstances, there are other compelling reasons for declining jurisdiction." 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c)(3). As noted by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, " Once a district court has dismissed the federal claims in an action, it maintains 'wide discretion' to dismiss the supplemental state law claims over which it properly has supplemental jurisdiction." Yashenko v. Harrah's N.C. Casino Co., LLC, 446 F.3d 541, 553 n.4 (4th Cir. 2006) (citing Carnegie-Mellon Univ. v. Cohill, 484 U.S. 343, 353-54, 108 S.Ct. 614, 98 L.Ed.2d 720 (1988)). In exercising this discretion, a district court must consider " convenience and fairness to the parties, the existence of any underlying issues of federal policy, comity, and considerations of judicial economy." Shanaghan v. Cahill, 58 F.3d 106, 110 (4th Cir. 1995) (citing Cohill, 484 U.S. at 350 n.7). In the event a court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction, the " period of limitations" for remaining claims " shall be tolled while the claim is pending [in federal court] and for a period of 30 days after it is dismissed unless State law provides for a longer tolling period." 42 U.S.C. § 1367(d).

         Plaintiff substantively responds to Defendants' summary-judgment arguments regarding her claims of defamation (against Wateree) and civil conspiracy (against the Individual Defendants). Id. at 9-17. She then " respectfully requests" that, " [a]ssuming the Court agrees with the arguments set forth by the Defendants in regards to Plaintiff's federal claims," the court decline to exercise its supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state-law claims of defamation and civil conspiracy and that they be " transferred to South Carolina State Court, Court of Common Pleas, for final resolution." Id. at 18. Plaintiff submits that there is an interest in having the state-law claims adjudicated in state court. Id. at 19.

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          In reply, Defendants disagree. Defs.' Reply 4-6. Defendants correctly note that, as this matter was not filed in state court initially, the matter could not be remanded (or " transferred" ) to state court. They also submit that factors informing the decision regarding whether to exercise supplemental jurisdiction weigh in favor of this matter proceeding in this court. Id. Defendants note that Plaintiff chose the federal forum when she filed her employment case. Further, Defendants submit that the " substantial resources" they have devoted to litigating this case in federal court--including completed documentary discovery, depositions, and multiple subpoenas--would need to be duplicated in state court, at additional costs to the litigants. Id. at 4-5. Defendants further submit that " [j]udicial economy would not be served if Plaintiff were to begin anew in state court." Id. at 5. Defendants submit that federal courts " routinely decide" defamation and civil conspiracy claims, particularly when the law is not disputed by the parties. Finally, Defendants submit declination of supplemental jurisdiction at this juncture would be especially prejudicial to the Individual Defendants. Id. at 6.

         The undersigned recommends the court retain jurisdiction over Plaintiff's defamation and civil conspiracy claims. Continuing the case in federal court is both fair and convenient to both parties, as neither side would incur additional expenses or travel difficulties. Additionally, Plaintiff is now proceeding pro se.[3] If the court declined supplemental jurisdiction, Plaintiff would be required to refile in state court, and adjudication in state court would likely take longer than in this court, where proceedings are already underway. As such, issues of fairness and convenience to the parties suggest retaining jurisdiction over these state-law claims.

         Issues of federal policy and considerations of comity do not weigh against retaining supplemental jurisdiction over the state claims, which require straightforward application of defined case law. As such, issues of comity do not dictate against retaining jurisdiction. Accordingly, the undersigned now considers Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment as to Plaintiff's defamation and civil conspiracy claims.

         III. Standard of Review

         The court shall grant summary judgment " if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The movant bears the initial burden of demonstrating that summary judgment is appropriate; if the movant carries its burden, then the burden shifts to the non-movant to set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). If a movant asserts that a fact cannot be disputed, it must support that assertion either by " citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials; " or " showing . . . that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1).

         In considering a motion for summary judgment, the evidence of the non-moving

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party is to be believed and all justifiable inferences must be drawn in favor of the non-moving party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). However, " [o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted." Id. at 248. All that is required is that " sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual dispute be shown to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. " Mere unsupported speculation . . . is not enough to defeat a summary judgment motion." Ennis v. Nat'l Ass'n of Bus. & Educ. Radio, Inc., 53 F.3d 55, 62 (4th Cir. 1995). A party cannot create a genuine issue of material fact solely with conclusions in his or her own affidavit or deposition that are not based on personal knowledge. See Latif v. The Cmty. Coll. of Baltimore, 354 Fed.Appx. 828, 830 (4th Cir. 2009) (affirming district court's grant of summary judgment, noting plaintiff's affidavit, which offered conclusions not based on his own knowledge, did not create genuine issues of material fact). The court cannot make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence, but the court should examine uncontradicted and unimpeached evidence offered by the moving party. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000).

         IV. Factual Background

         Taken in the light most favorable to Plaintiff as supported in the record, the court considers the following facts:

         Plaintiff worked for Wateree from September 1986 until she was terminated effective August 6, 2012. Pl.'s Dep. 30-31.[4] Wateree is a non-profit organization that aims to assist low-income and indigent individuals in Clarendon, Lee, Kershaw, Richland, and Sumter counties to better their living conditions. Id. at 33-35. Wateree is governed by a Board of Directors and a management team consisting of an executive director, finance director, head start director, weatherization director, and a community services and energy (" CSE" ) director. Pl.'s Dep. 35. Prior to her termination, Plaintiff served as the CSE Director, managing the Community Services Block Grant (" CSBG" ) and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (" LIHEAP" ) programs. The CSBG and LIHEAP programs were overseen largely by the South Carolina Office of Economic Opportunity (" OEO" ). Id. at 43-45. Wateree is funded primarily through block grants from federal programs that are allocated through the OEO to community action agencies based on poverty data for each county. Id. at 41; Dep. of Wateree Executive Director (and Defendant) Coleman 159, ECF No. 49-4. The OEO monitors the expenditure of funds to ensure they are spent according to the policies, guidelines, regulations, and grant agreements. Coleman Dep. 159, Pl.'s Dep. 45. The OEO sends a grant agreement at the beginning of each fiscal year and conducts regular audits to ensure compliance by the community action agencies. Coleman Dep. 160. If the OEO determines funds are not being spent pursuant to the regulations and agreements, the OEO could require the money be refunded and, ultimately, defund the agency. Id. at 160-61.

         Wateree provided Plaintiff with an updated handbook in January 2012 (" Handbook" ). ECF No. 33-5 (handbook),

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see Pl.'s Dep. 31. Plaintiff signed a Notice and Disclaimer upon receipt of the Handbook acknowledging that she was an at-will employee and her understanding that the " agency or the employee may terminate the employment relationship at any time with or without cause or notice." ECF No. 33-6. The Handbook included an Equal Employment Opportunity and Harassment policy stating Wateree does not discriminate in any aspect of employment and directing employees to report any violations of policy to their supervisors, any other member of management, human resources, or the Chief Executive Officer (" CEO" ). Id.

         As CSE Plaintiff's job description states that she " assumes full responsibility for directing, supervising, planning and managing [CSBG] and [LIHEAP] projects to benefit the low income [individuals] of Clarendon, Kershaw, Lee, Richland and Sumter Counties." ECF Nos. 33-7, 33-8; Pl.'s Dep. 43. Plaintiff was responsible for coordinating the OEO audits of the CSBG and LIHEAP programs. ECF Nos. 33-7, 33-8; Pl.'s Dep. 45.

         On May 3, 1993, Rubye J. Johnson, Wateree's then-Executive Director, wrote a letter to Plaintiff expressing concern regarding Plaintiff's lack of planning and attention to detail. ECF No. 33-9. Johnson noted that over the previous two years, she had observed a lack of " planning and priority setting" by Plaintiff and " again warn[ed]" her that, unless improvements were made, Wateree could lose grant funds. Id. at 1. Johnson particularly counseled Plaintiff that " [i]mprovements [were] needed in time-charted planning, narrative writing and organization skills, grammar, spelling and research and evaluation recordation." Id. Johnson also noted Plaintiff was treating her monthly reporting responsibilities with " little importance." Id. Johnson instructed Plaintiff that, " [t]o help prevent a reoccurrence of last minute rushing," Johnson was requiring that Plaintiff plan to submit " tasks" to her " far in advance of the required date they are due to a funding agency. In this way, we can avoid errors, stress and interference with my schedule." Id. at 2. Plaintiff had discussions with Johnson on at least a quarterly basis to discuss, inter alia, Plaintiff's performance. Pl.'s Dep. 60.

         On November 2, 2005, as she was concluding her term as Executive Director, Johnson provided Plaintiff with a memorandum titled " Important Words of Wisdom," which set out several issues that persisted with Plaintiff's job performance. ECF No. 33-10. In part, the memorandum provides:

There is deep concern that I have regarding the quality and efficiency reflected in work going out from your office to one of our major funding agencies, the State O.E.O.
The funding agency should not have to discover errors to point up to us over and over again when we have well-paid professional staff hired to prevent that, to produce efficiency plus (sic) and to teach subordinate[s] how to be efficient and error-conscious.
Case in point are the two documents enclosed. The memorandum to Ms. Lancaster, the State O.E.O. Director, as brief as it is, has two gross grammatical errors. It shows a deficiency in knowledge about subject-verb agreement, which is literally elementary education. This is ...

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