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Harris v. Tietex International Ltd.

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

June 29, 2016

Gary G. Harris, Appellant,
Tietex International Ltd., Respondent. Appellate Case No. 2014-000902

          Submitted May 2, 2016

         Appeal From Spartanburg County J. Derham Cole, Circuit Court Judge

          Duane Alan Lazenby and Ginger D. Goforth, both of Lazenby Law Firm, LLC, of Spartanburg, for Appellant.

          Fred W. Suggs, Jr. and Lucas James Asper, of Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart, PC, of Greenville, for Respondent.

          SHORT, J.:

         In this defamation case, Gary Harris appeals the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Tietex International, Ltd. (Tietex), arguing the trial court erred in finding summary judgment was appropriate based on (1) a lack of genuine issue of material fact, (2) the statute of limitations, (3) res judicata, and (4) collateral estoppel. We affirm.


         In 1994, Tietex hired Harris as a senior research chemist. In 2006, Harris began to complain of having difficulty breathing and experiencing flu-like symptoms and headaches. Harris believed his health problems were being caused by mold present near his work area in Tietex's laboratory. Tietex had the laboratory tested; however, no mold was detected. A series of emails between Harris and his supervisor, Wade Wallace, indicate they discussed relocating Harris from the lab and allowing Harris to work in another area to protect him from the environment. Wallace explained to Harris that Tietex did not want to take any chances with his health and instructed Harris not to enter the lab under any circumstances.

         On February 9, 2007, Wallace sent an email to his supervisor, Mark Isbell, and Human Resources Manager David Wilson, summarizing a conversation he allegedly had with Harris two days earlier. In the email, Wallace explained that Harris had expressed he was overwhelmed with personal problems and was "confused, disoriented, and could not function." However, according to Wallace, Harris eventually stated he could work through his problems and thanked Wallace for his support and patience.

         On March 5, 2007, Wallace met with Harris to discuss several issues Harris needed to correct regarding his work performance. Following their meeting, Wallace sent a memo to Wilson, Isbell, and Harris, outlining the issues he and Harris discussed. On June 18, 2007, Wallace sent another memo to Wilson, Harris, and Isbell regarding Harris's work on two projects. Wallace explained Harris initiated the first project by convincing management he could develop a chemical compound that would result in cost savings for Tietex. However, according to Wallace, Harris had made no significant progress after working on the project for six months. Wallace claimed Harris "exercised poor judgement by making claims and commitments that he could not deliver." Wallace also criticized Harris's work on the second project, claiming Harris failed to conduct adequate scientific analysis. Wallace stated Harris's "negligence" was unacceptable for a senior research chemist.

         On July 3, 2007, Wallace placed Harris on administrative suspension. On July 18, 2007, Wallace sent a final memo to Wilson and Isbell regarding Harris. Wallace claimed Harris had failed to correct all but one of the issues oulined in the March 5, 2007 memo and described several other problems he had had with Harris's work performance. Wallace explained he had lost confidence in Harris's ability to perform his job and recommended Tietex terminate Harris's employment. On July 19, 2007, Tietex terminated Harris's employment.

         In August 2008, Harris filed a complaint in circuit court asserting causes of action against Tietex for retaliation and discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act[1] (ADEA), breach of contract, breach of contract accompanied by a fraudulent act, and defamation. Tietex removed the case to United States District Court.

         At a deposition, Harris initially claimed the issues Wallace described in the March 5, 2007 memo regarding Harris were false; however, when questioned about each issue individually, Harris did not completely dispute each point. Harris also disputed some of the information contained in the June 18, 2007 memo and July 18, 2007 memo. Additionally, Harris characterized the portion of the June memo that described his work on the second project as "highly misleading as to what really happened." Harris admitted he had no evidence that Tietex shared these memos with anyone other than the individuals to whom they were addressed.

         On October 28, 2010, the district court granted summary judgment to Tietex on Harris's ADEA claims and dismissed Harris's state law claims, declining to exercise supplemental jurisdiction. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's judgment on May 31, 2011.

         On October 21, 2011, Harris filed his complaint against Tietex in the instant case. Harris later filed an amended complaint, which included a cause of action for defamation. Harris's amended complaint did not identify the specific statements on which his defamation claim was based. At a deposition, Harris identified seven items related to his lawsuit that he believed were defamatory: (1) the February 9, 2007 email from Wallace to Wilson; (2) the March 5, 2007 memo; (3) the June 18, 2007 memo; (4) the July 18, 2007 memo; (5) "rumors in the industry" that he had been terminated for falsifying a test report; (6) Tietex suspending Harris; and (7) Tietex "banning" Harris from the laboratory. Harris admitted his defamation ...

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