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Huffman v. Sunshine Recycling, LLC

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

June 22, 2016

Meredith Huffman, Appellant,
v.
Sunshine Recycling, LLC and Aiken Electric Cooperative, Inc., Respondents. Appellate Case No. 2014-001492

          Heard May 4, 2016

         Appeal From Orangeburg County Maité Murphy, Circuit Court Judge

          J. Todd Rutherford, of The Rutherford Law Firm, LLC, and Robert F. Goings, of Goings Law Firm, LLC, both of Columbia, for Appellant.

          Breon CM. Walker and Jessica A. Waller, both of Gallivan, White & Boyd, P.A., of Columbia, for Respondent Sunshine Recycling, LLC.

          Pope D. Johnson, III, of Columbia, for Respondent Aiken Electric Cooperative, Inc.

          GEATHERS, J.:

         In this action for false imprisonment and malicious prosecution, Appellant Meredith Huffman seeks review of the circuit court's order granting summary judgment to Respondents, Sunshine Recycling, LLC (Sunshine) and Aiken Electric Cooperative, Inc. (Aiken) (collectively, Respondents). Huffman argues there were genuine issues of material fact concerning whether Respondents caused, instigated, or procured her arrest and the extent of Respondents' participation in law enforcement's charging Huffman with receiving stolen goods. We reverse and remand for a trial on the merits of Huffman's false imprisonment and malicious prosecution claims.[1]

         FACTS/PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On May 16, 2010, an unidentified black male broke into Aiken's Orangeburg facility. Shortly thereafter, a white Ford F-150 truck was seen leaving the facility's parking lot. The next day, Mark Goss, Aiken's Loss Control and Safety Coordinator, viewed the surveillance video and advised Deputy Maurice Huggins of the Orangeburg County Sheriff's Department that several pounds of solid copper and several pounds of aluminum tie wire had been stolen from Aiken. At that time, Goss estimated the value of the stolen metal to be approximately $330.

         On that same day, Goss also checked with Sunshine, a metal recycling business, to see if anyone had tried to sell the stolen metal to Sunshine. Goss discovered the stolen metal at Sunshine and spoke with Sunshine's owner, Joseph Rich. Goss told Rich he was looking for a black male in a white Ford pickup truck.

         Officer Ashley Aldridge of the Orangeburg County Sheriff's Department also appeared at Sunshine to investigate the theft. Rich, who claimed to speak Spanish, spoke to an unnamed Spanish-speaking employee working in the metal drop-off area but failed to mention that Goss was looking for a black male in a white Ford pickup truck. Rich's employee allegedly told Rich that a white woman was the first person to drop off metal that morning. Although the individual who stole the metal from Aiken was a black male, Goss testified in his deposition that in the metal industry, "it's not uncommon for girlfriends and wives to bring metal in and drop them off. It happens all the time."

         Rich told Officer Aldridge and Goss they were welcome to view the receipts documenting the amount paid to customers who had sold metal to Sunshine and the time-stamped video footage of customers waiting at the payment window. Officer Aldridge viewed this video and saw Huffman waiting for her payment. Officer Aldridge also obtained a receipt for the metal sold by Huffman, which indicated a payment of $53 to her.

         Subsequently, Goss spoke with Officer James Ethridge of the Orangeburg County Sheriff's Department and told Officer Ethridge that he had spoken with Huffman while she was waiting to get paid for "the items that she had just brought in."[2]Goss also told Officer Ethridge that "he viewed the items after she left and identified them as" belonging to Aiken. Actually, when Goss identified the metal left in Sunshine's drop-off area as the metal stolen from Aiken, he was viewing what had been commingled with the metal left by Huffman. Goss recognized that some of the copper and aluminum in the area had characteristics distinguishable from those of the copper and aluminum stolen from Aiken. Goss admitted in his deposition, "it was all right there in like a big pile kind of, and I don't remember if it was on top of each other or what. It was all right there in one section." When Rich advised Goss that Huffman left the stolen metal, Goss apparently did not mention the distinction he had made between the different types of copper and aluminum in the area. Further, Rich's employee apparently did not tell Rich that a black male in a white Ford pickup truck dropped off metal immediately after Huffman dropped off her metal.

         On the next day, May 18, 2010, Officer Ethridge visited Sunshine to photograph the metal identified as stolen. While he was there, he also spoke with Rich, who stated he had not yet obtained a copy of the video showing customers dropping off their metal but he would contact Palmetto Security Cameras to request Alan Price to "burn" a copy of the video for Officer Ethridge. During the next three days, Goss called Officer Ethridge several times, asking him what he was going to do with the case. During this same time period, Officer Ethridge called Rich several times, asking when he could obtain the video of customers dropping off metal.

         While still waiting on this video, Officer Ethridge contacted a local magistrate on May 21, 2010, to obtain a warrant for Huffman's arrest for receiving stolen goods.[3] After Huffman learned about the warrant, she advised Officer Ethridge that she sold metal to Sunshine but it was not stolen; rather, it was salvaged from a mobile home belonging to her and her husband after they tore down the home. Officer Ethridge instructed Huffman to meet him at the Sheriff's Department at 9:00 a.m. the next morning, June 2, 2010. At that time, Huffman gave a statement to Officer Ethridge, and he formally served Huffman with the arrest warrant. Officer Ethridge then placed Huffman in handcuffs, and she was required to change into a prison jumpsuit and wait for the next bond hearing. She was unable to telephone her home to check on her children, who were not being supervised by an adult, and she was required to appear at the bond hearing handcuffed and shackled. Huffman obtained a personal recognizance bond, and she was finally released at approximately 5:00 p.m.

         After Huffman's arrest and release, Officer Ethridge finally was able to view the video of Huffman dropping off her metal at Sunshine. Goss viewed this video around the same time that Officer Ethridge viewed it, although Goss had actually received the video before Huffman was arrested. Rich never viewed the video.

         In his report, Officer Ethridge stated that he watched "the video of where [Huffman] took the items off of her truck and she did have some copper that resembles what was taken in the back of her truck, but the aluminum was sheeting[, ] not wire." He further stated he advised Rich "that after viewing the video, it does not show her with the same items that w[ere] taken. Due to these facts[, ] there is not enough evidence to support this case. I will be dismissing these charges on Huffman." Notably, the video also showed that the customer following Huffman was the black male Goss had seen on Aiken's surveillance video, Eugene James, unloading metal from the white Ford pickup truck he was driving.

         Near the end of his report, Officer Ethridge noted, "At this time[, ] I am not comfortable with this case due to the witnesses gave [sic] me false information the first time." After Officer Ethridge dropped the charge of receiving stolen goods against Huffman, the Sheriff's Department finally located James. James ultimately pled guilty to the charges brought against him.

         On May 9, 2012, Huffman filed a complaint against the Sheriff's Department and Sunshine, asserting claims for negligence, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution. In May 2013, Huffman amended her complaint to add Aiken as a defendant. On or about June 27, 2013, Aiken filed a motion to dismiss Huffman's complaint against it. Huffman later settled her claims against the Sheriff's Department, and the two parties filed a stipulation dismissing the Sheriff's Department from the action on or about December 18, 2014. Several weeks later, Sunshine filed a motion for summary judgment, and the circuit court conducted a hearing on this motion as well as Aiken's motion to dismiss on March 10, 2014. Upon Aiken's request, the circuit court converted Aiken's motion to dismiss into a summary judgment motion.

         On or about April 3, 2014, the circuit court granted Respondents' summary judgment motions. The circuit court later denied Huffman's motion to alter or amend the written order granting summary judgment. This appeal followed.

         ISSUES ON APPEAL

1. Were there issues of fact material to whether Huffman's arrest was lawful?
2. Were there issues of fact material to whether Respondents caused, instigated, or procured Huffman's arrest?
3. Were there issues of fact material to whether there was probable cause to charge Huffman with receiving stolen goods?
4. Were there issues of fact material to Respondents' participation in local law enforcement's charging Huffman with receiving stolen goods?

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         This court reviews the grant of a summary judgment motion under the same standard applied by the trial court pursuant to Rule 56(c), SCRCP. Jackon v. Bermuda Sands, Inc., 383 S.C. 11, 14 n.2, 677 S.E.2d 612, 614 n.2 (Ct. App. 2009). Rule 56(c), SCRCP, provides 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 no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." "In determining whether any triable issues of fact exist for summary judgment purposes, the evidence and all the inferences [that] can be reasonably drawn from the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Hancock v. Mid-S. Mgmt. Co., 381 S.C. 326, 329-30, 673 S.E.2d 801, 802 (2009); Fleming v. Rose, 350 S.C. 488, 493-94, 567 S.E.2d 857, 860 (2002).

         Further, "[s]ummary judgment should not be granted even when there is no dispute as to evidentiary facts if there is disagreement concerning the conclusion to be drawn from those facts." Lanham v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of S.C., Inc., 349 S.C. 356, 362, 563 S.E.2d 331, 333 (2002). "On appeal from an order granting summary judgment, the appellate court will review all ambiguities, conclusions, and inferences arising in and from the evidence in a light most favorable to the non-moving party below." Id.

         Moreover, "in cases applying the preponderance of the evidence burden of proof, the non-moving party is only required to submit a mere scintilla of evidence in order to withstand a motion for summary judgment." Hancock, 381 S.C. at 330, 673 S.E.2d at 803. "At the summary judgment stage of litigation, the court does not weigh conflicting evidence with respect to a disputed material fact." S.C. Prop. & Cas. Guar. Ass'n v. Yensen, 345 S.C. 512, 518, 548 S.E.2d 880, 883 (Ct. App. 2001). "[B]ecause summary judgment is a drastic remedy, it should be cautiously invoked to ensure a litigant is not ...


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