United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Anderson/Greenwood Division
ORDER ADOPTING THE REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION AND
GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
GEIGER LEWIS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
filed this lawsuit as a Title VII retaliation action. The
parties are represented by excellent counsel. The matter is
before the Court for review of the Report and Recommendation
(Report) of the United States Magistrate Judge suggesting
that Defendant's motion for summary judgment be granted.
The Report was made in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636
and Local Civil Rule 73.02 for the District of South
Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this Court.
The recommendation has no presumptive weight. The
responsibility to make a final determination remains with the
Court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270 (1976).
The Court is charged with making a de novo determination of
those portions of the Report to which specific objection is
made, and the Court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole
or in part, the recommendation of the Magistrate Judge or
recommit the matter with instructions. 28 U.S.C. §
Magistrate Judge filed the Report on May 10, 2016, Plaintiff
filed her objections to the Report on May 25, 2016, and
Defendant filed its reply on June 13, 2016. The Court has
reviewed the objections, but finds them to be without merit.
Therefore, it will enter judgment accordingly.
case, Plaintiff seeks to establish a violation of Title
VII's anti-retaliation provision through the
burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v.
Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Under the McDonnell
Douglas framework, an employee must first establish a
prima facie case of retaliation. Id. at 802. To do
so, an employee must demonstrate "(1) she engaged in
protected activity, (2) the employer acted adversely against
her, and (3) there was a causal connection between the
protected activity and the asserted adverse action."
Hoyle v. Freightliner, LLC, 650 F.3d 321, 337 (4th
Cir. 2001). Only if the employee successfully demonstrates a
prima facie case of retaliation does the burden shift to the
employer to articulate some legitimate, non-retaliatory
reason for the adverse employment action. See McDonnell
Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802. If the employer articulates a
legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason, the burden shifts back
to the employee to show that the articulated reason was
actually a pretext for retaliation. See Id. at 804.
makes two primary objections to the Report, with a number of
specific objections stemming therefrom. First, Plaintiff
objects to the Report by asserting that "[t]he
Magistrate Judge failed to address facts in the record which
favored Plaintiff and failed to construe all inferences and
ambiguities against the movant and in favor of the non-moving
party when holding that an intervening event broke the causal
connection between the protected activity and the
termination." ECF No. 46 at 1 (internal quotation marks
omitted). The Court will now consider each of Plaintiff's
sub-arguments to her first objection in turn.
initially propounds that the Magistrate Judge failed to
recognize facts in favor of Plaintiff purportedly
establishing that Chief Jimmy Dixon was the final and sole
decision maker in determining to terminate Plaintiff.
Id. at 1-3. Rather, Plaintiff contends, the
Magistrate Judge inferred that Dixon, City Administrator Rick
Cotton, and possibly City Attorney Kay Barrett were mutual
decision makers in the case. Id. at 2. The evidence
presented by Plaintiff shows that Dixon believed that the
decision to terminate Plaintiff was solely his, ECF No. 31-9
at 59:17-24, and Plaintiff argues based on this testimony
that the Magistrate Judge should have found that "Dixon
was the sole decision maker and had no input from anyone,
" ECF No. 46 at 3.
Plaintiff is correct that the evidence supports a finding
that Dixon was the sole decision maker in the decision to
terminate Plaintiff, Plaintiff's application of this fact
conflates the issue of causation with the issue of pretext.
As is fully discussed below, Dixon's being the sole
decision maker in choosing to terminate Plaintiff in no way
changes the Magistrate Judge's suggestion that Plaintiff
failed to establish the requisite causal connection between
Plaintiff's alleged protected activity and her
next alleges that "[t]he Magistrate Judge failed to
address any of the specific reasons giv[en] by Dixon for
Plaintiff's termination." ECF No. 46 at 3. Under
Plaintiff's reasoning, Dixon did not honestly believe any
of the reasons given for Plaintiff's termination, which
were contained in Barrett's report, and because
Dixon's stated reasons for terminating Plaintiff were
allegedly false, Dixon's reliance on those reasons
demonstrates pretext for retaliation. Id. at 3-11.
Plaintiff further avers that the reasons Dixon relied on to
terminate Plaintiff cannot be an intervening event because
Dixon allegedly knew them to be false. Id. at 3, 10.
Plaintiff has again mistakenly conflated the issue of
causation with the issue of pretext. Simply put, the Court
need not reach the issue of pretext because Plaintiff has
failed to establish a prima facie case of retaliation.
then claims that the Magistrate Judge neglected to consider
"evidence and case law that Defendant changed the
identity of the decision-maker to shield Dixon, " that
Defendant changed the reasons for termination throughout the
various legal stages of the case, and that Defendant failed
to follow its own policies, all of which the Magistrate Judge
purportedly should have considered in her pretext analysis.
Id. at 11-12. Nevertheless, as will be pointed out,
Plaintiff's objection is without merit because she has
failed to establish her prima facie case of retaliation, and
thus the Court need not conduct an analysis under the other
two prongs of McDonnell Douglas. Therefore, the
Court will overrule Plaintiff's first objection.
Plaintiff asseverates that "the Magistrate Judge also
erred in finding . . . that Plaintiff cannot establish
pretext, " id. at 13, although, as already
noted, the Court need not reach this issue. Plaintiff
believes the Magistrate Judge erred in finding that Plaintiff
failed to show a causal connection between her alleged
protected activity and her termination and maintains that her
objections demonstrate the requisite causal connection
sufficient to show a prima facie case of retaliation.
Id. at 13-14.
demonstrate a causal connection between her alleged protected
activity and her termination, a plaintiff asserting a
retaliation claim must be able to show that her employer took
the adverse action "‘because the
plaintiff engaged in a protected activity.'"
Holland v. Wash. Homes, Inc., 487 F.3d 208, 218 (4th
Cir. 2007) (quoting Dowe v. Total Action Against Poverty
in Roanoke Valley, 145 F.3d 653, 657 (4th Cir. 1998)).
In certain circumstances, "very close" temporal
proximity between the protected activity and the adverse
action can be probative of a causal connection. See Clark
Cty. Sch. Dist. v. Breeden, 532 U.S. 268, 273-74 (2001).
However, if intervening events occur between a
plaintiff's protected activity and the adverse action
that have a direct bearing on the adverse employment action,
the causal connection will be broken. See Cheshewalla v.
Rand & Son Constr. Co., 415 F.3d 847, 852 (8th Cir.
2005) (holding that "intervening events eroded any
causal connection suggested by the temporal proximity of [the
employee's] protected conduct and her layoff"
(internal quotation marks omitted)). In particular, the
causal connection is broken where a plaintiff receives
favorable evaluations or promotions between the time of the
protected activity and the adverse action. See,
e.g., Joiner v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 114
F.Supp.2d 400, 410 (W.D. N.C. 2000).
to Plaintiff's assertions, Plaintiff has failed to
establish a prima facie case of retaliation because she
cannot show a causal connection between her alleged protected
activity and her termination. In this case, the Magistrate
Judge recommended that even if the Court uses the September
2013 complaint date and finds that the one-month time period
between that complaint and Plaintiff's termination in
October 2013 "is sufficient to establish a causal
connection, intervening events occurred between