United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Columbia Division
Thurmond R. Guess, Sr., Plaintiffs,
David Adams, as Richland County Treasurer; Shirley S. Tapp, Defendants.
ORDER AND REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
PAIGE J. GOSETT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Plaintiff Thurmond R. Guess, a self-represented litigant, filed this action alleging a violation of his rights under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1982, and 1983. 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 the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. (ECF No. 20.) Guess filed a response in opposition (ECF No. 23) and the defendants filed a reply (ECF No. 28). Also before the court is Guess’s motion to strike affidavits submitted by the defendants (ECF No. 26), to which the defendants filed a response in opposition (ECF No. 29), and Guess filed a reply (ECF No. 30). Having carefully considered the parties’ submissions and the applicable law, the court concludes that the defendants’ motion (ECF No. 20) should be granted.
Guess alleges that he was the highest bidder for a piece of property being sold in a “County Wide Tax” sale on December 3, 2012. (ECF No. 1 at 2.) Guess claims that he paid $300 and was provided a bidder receipt for purchase of the property. (Id.) Guess states that the defaulting tax payer, William S. Boyle, Jr., failed to timely redeem the property; however, fifteen months after the tax sale, the defendants cancelled or voided the sale. (Id.) Guess alleges that he received a call from the defendants on April 9, 2014 regarding the return of the property to the County. (Id.) Guess asserts that the defendants’ actions were discriminatory and due to Guess’s race. (Id.) Guess alleges entitlement to injunctive and declaratory relief and seeks monetary damages for the defendants’ actions. (Id. at 2, 4.)
A. Summary Judgment Standard
Summary judgment is appropriate only if the moving party “shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the [moving party] is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A party may support or refute that a material fact is not disputed by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record” or by “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). Rule 56 mandates entry of summary judgment “against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).
In deciding whether there is a genuine issue of material fact, the evidence of the non-moving 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 (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.
The moving party has the burden of proving that summary judgment is appropriate. Once the moving party makes this showing, however, the opposing party may not rest upon mere allegations or denials, but rather must, by affidavits or other means permitted by the Rule, set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c), (e); Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322. Further, while the federal court is charged with liberally construing a complaint filed by a pro se litigant to allow the development of a potentially meritorious case, see, e.g., Cruz v. Beto, 405 U.S. 319 (1972), the requirement of liberal construction does not mean that the court can ignore a clear failure in the pleadings to allege facts which set forth a federal claim, nor can the court assume the existence of a genuine issue of material fact where none exists. Weller v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 901 F.2d 387 (4th Cir. 1990).
B. Direct Evidence and Burden-Shifting Framework
A plaintiff asserting a claim of unlawful discrimination may proceed through two avenues of proof. First, he may directly prove through direct or circumstantial evidence that a protected characteristic such as race was a motivating factor in the decision which adversely affected him. See Hill v. Lockheed Martin Logistics Mgmt., Inc., 354 F.3d 277, 284-85 (4th Cir. 2004) (en banc). Such proof includes “evidence of conduct or statements that both reflect directly the alleged discriminatory attitude and that bear directly on the contested . . . decision.” Id. (quoting Fuller v. Phipps, 67 F.3d 1137, 1142 (4th Cir. 1995)). “[A] plaintiff must demonstrate that a ‘protected trait . . . actually played a role in the  decisionmaking process and had a determinative influence on the outcome.’ ” Worden v. SunTrust Banks, Inc., 549 F.3d 334, 342 n.7 (4th Cir. 2008) (quoting Hill, 354 F.3d at 286).
Alternatively, when direct proof is lacking, a plaintiff may proceed under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. Warch v. Ohio Casualty Ins. Co., 435 F.3d 510, 520 (4th Cir. 2006); see also McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973). Pursuant to this framework, once the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case of discrimination, the burden shifts to the defendant to produce evidence of a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse action. Merritt v. Old Dominion Freight, 601 F.3d 289, 294 (4th Cir. 2010) (Title VII). The defendant’s burden “is one of production, not persuasion.” Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 142 (2000). Once a defendant meets this burden by producing affidavits or testimony demonstrating a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason, “the McDonnell Douglas framework-with its presumptions and burdens-disappear[s], and the sole remaining issue [is] discrimination vel non.” Id. (internal quotation marks & citations omitted). In other words, if the defendant meets the burden to demonstrate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason, the plaintiff must demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that the proffered reason was “ ‘not its true reason, but [was] a pretext for discrimination.’ ” Merritt, 601 F.3d at 294 (quoting Texas Dep’t of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253 (1981)). Accordingly, the plaintiff’s burden of demonstrating pretext “ ‘merges with the ultimate burden of persuading the court that [the plaintiff] has been the victim of intentional discrimination.’ ” Merritt, 601 F.3d at 294 (quoting Burdine, 450 U.S. at 256) (alterations in original); see also Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 319 (4th Cir. 2005) (Title VII & 42 U.S.C. § 1981). To meet this “merged” burden, the [plaintiff] may prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the decision maker’s affidavit is untrue or that the defendant’s proffered explanation is unworthy of credence. Burdine, 450 U.S. at 256.
“[A] plaintiff’s prima facie case, combined with sufficient evidence to find that the [defendant’s] asserted justification is false, may permit the trier of fact to conclude that the [defendant] unlawfully discriminated.” Reeves, 530 U.S. at 148 (emphasis added). However, “if the record conclusively reveal[s] some other, nondiscriminatory reason for the [defendant’s] decision, or if the plaintiff create[s] only a weak issue of fact as to whether the [defendant’s] reason was untrue and there was abundant and uncontroverted independent evidence that no discrimination had occurred, ” summary judgment is appropriate. Id. Accordingly, the court must evaluate “the strength of the plaintiff’s prima facie case, the probative value of the proof that the [defendant’s] explanation is false, and any other evidence that supports the [defendant’s] case and that properly may be considered on a motion for judgment as a matter of law.” Id. at 148-49. ...