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Cooper v. Spartanburg County School District No. 7

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Greenville Division

July 6, 2016

Wendell Cooper, Plaintiff,
v.
Spartanburg County School District No. 7 Defendant.

          ORDER AND OPINION

         This matter is before the court on Defendant Spartanburg County School District No. 7’s (“Defendant”) Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 166.) In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Civil Rule 73.02, D.S.C., the matter was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Jacquelyn Austin for a Report and Recommendation. On June 15, 2016, the Magistrate Judge issued a Report and Recommendation (“Report”) recommending that the court grant Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 202.) For the reasons stated herein, the court ADOPTS the Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation (ECF No. 202) with respect to the federal claim. Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 166) is GRANTED as to all claims. It is therefore ORDERED that Plaintiff’s action (ECF No. 1) is DISMISSED with prejudice.

         I. RELEVANT FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Wendell Cooper (“Plaintiff”) began working as a continuing contract teacher for Defendant in 2006. (ECF No. 15 at 2 ¶ 9.) As of the 2010-2011 school year, Plaintiff served as a physical education teacher at Whitlock Flexible Learning Center (“Whitlock”). (Id.) In December of 2011, Plaintiff requested FMLA leave beginning January 2, 2012. (ECF No. 202 at 2.) Wanda Andrews (“Andrews”), who was Defendant’s Assistant Superintendent for Personnel at the time, approved Plaintiff’s request for FMLA leave. (Id.) In the approval letter, Andrews notified Plaintiff that any accrued leave may be substituted for unpaid leave, and that once all accrued leave was used, his pay would be adjusted accordingly. (Id.) Andrews also notified Plaintiff that in order for his request to be completed, he needed to have his doctor complete Defendant’s standard form for FMLA leave. (Id.) Further, Andrews informed Defendant that, upon his return to work, he would be required to provide a certification from his physician confirming his fitness to return to duty. (Id.) On December 15, 2011, Andrews received a medical certification form indicating that Plaintiff would have surgery on December 16, 2011, and would likely return to work on May 1, 2012.[1] (Id. at 2-3.) On January 31, 2012, Plaintiff sent another copy of the medical certification form that had been previously submitted on December 15, 2011. (Id.) On March 8, 2012, Plaintiff’s physician sent an updated medical form to Defendant, which indicated that Plaintiff had been examined on January 19, 2012, and could return to sedentary duty as of January 3, 2012, but that his estimated date of return to full duty was May 1, 2012. (Id.)

         On March 13, 2012, Plaintiff returned to work full time with the aid of a teacher’s assistant to assist Plaintiff with physical activities and demonstrations. (Id.) After he returned to work, Plaintiff complained about his pay.[2] Andrews received complaints from staff and payroll personnel that Plaintiff was repeatedly contacting them about his pay in an unprofessional manner. (Id.) Andrews met with Plaintiff on April 13, 2012, to review the leave policies and explain to Plaintiff how his pay was affected after his accrued leave had been depleted. (Id. at 3-4.) Andrews also reviewed the policies and procedures regarding workplace grievances in addition to documents detailing Plaintiff’s job description. (Id. at 4.) Andrews also required Plaintiff to sign a copy of the job description to demonstrate that they had reviewed and discussed the matters. (Id.)

         Subsequently, on December 18, 2012, Plaintiff requested FMLA leave for another surgery. Andrews approved Plaintiff’s request for FMLA leave. (Id.) In the approval letter, Andrews again notified Plaintiff that accrued leave may be substituted for unpaid leave, but that once all accrued leave had been used, his pay would be adjusted accordingly. (Id.) While out on FMLA leave, Plaintiff requested and was granted extensions beyond the twelve weeks of FMLA leave, and Plaintiff did not return to work during the 2012-2013 school year.[3] (Id. at 4-5.)

         On April 12, 2013, Plaintiff, proceeding pro se, filed this action alleging retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”) and 42 U.S.C. § 1981; interference and retaliation under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”); failure to pay wages under the South Carolina Payment of Wages Act; and breach of contract. (ECF No. 1.) Subsequently, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint on May 6, 2013. (ECF No. 15.) On March 11, 2016, Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment along with a Memorandum in Support. (ECF No. 166.) On March 14, 2016, the Magistrate Judge entered an order pursuant to Roseboro v. Garrison, 528 F.2d 309 (4th Cir. 1975), advising Plaintiff of the summary judgment procedure and the possible consequences if he failed to respond adequately. (ECF No. 168.) Subsequently, on March 30, 2016, the Magistrate Judge entered an order extending the deadline for Plaintiff to file a response to Defendant’s motion. (ECF No. 181). Plaintiff filed a Response to Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment on May 4, 2016. (ECF No. 189.)

         The Magistrate Judge issued her Report on June 15, 2016. (ECF No. 202.) Plaintiff was advised of his right to file objections to the Report. (ECF No. 202-1). Plaintiff filed Objections to the Report and Recommendation of Magistrate Judge (“Objections”) on July 1, 2016. (ECF No. 207.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         The Magistrate Judge’s Report is made in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Local Civil Rule 73.02 for the District of South Carolina. The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this court. The recommendation has no presumptive weight. The responsibility to make a final determination remains with this court. See Matthews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976). This court is charged with making a de novo determination of those portions of the Report to which specific objections are made, and the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the Magistrate Judge’s recommendation, or recommit the matter with instructions. See 28 U.S.C. § 636 (b)(1). Objections to a Report and Recommendation must specifically identify portions of the Report and the basis for those objections. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b). “[I]n the absence of a timely filed objection, a district court need not conduct a de novo review, but instead must ‘only satisfy itself that there is no clear error on the face of the record in order to accept the recommendation.’” Diamond v. Colonial Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 316 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 72 advisory committee’s note).

         As Plaintiff is a pro se litigant, the court is required to liberally construe his arguments. Gordon v. Leeke, 574 F.2d 1147, 1151 (4th Cir. 1978). The court addresses those arguments that, under the mandated liberal construction, it has reasonably found to state a claim. Barnett v. Hargett, 174 F.3d 1128, 1133 (10th Cir. 1999).

         III. ANALYSIS

         In his Objections, Plaintiff identifies three areas of the Magistrate Judge’s Report to which he objects. First, Plaintiff asserts that the Magistrate Judge erred in applying the incorrect standard of review for summary judgment. (ECF No. 207 at 2-3.) Second, Plaintiff contends that the Magistrate Judge’s determination that Plaintiff could not establish a prima facie case of retaliation and interference under the FMLA is unsupported by the evidence in the record. (Id. at 3-4.) Finally, Plaintiff contends that the Magistrate Judge erred in declining to consider his state law claims. (Id. at 4.) Because Plaintiff has filed specific objections, the court will conduct a de novo review of the Report as to the Magistrate Judge’s conclusions regarding the FMLA and state law claims. As to Plaintiff’s claims under Title VII and section 1981, the court has reviewed the Report and does not find clear error.

         1. Standard of Review

         First, Plaintiff asserts that the Magistrate Judge used a more stringent standard for summary judgment than is required by the Supreme Court of the United States. Plaintiff cites Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007) for the proposition that the Supreme Court requires courts to analyze motions for summary judgment on a “plausibility standard” whereby summary judgment should be denied if Plaintiff “pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” (ECF No. 207 at 3.) Plaintiff misinterprets the Supreme Court’s decision in Twombly. In Twombly, the Court was concerned with whether the plaintiffs stated a sufficient claim under the Sherman Act to survive a motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. When making a determination pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), a court presumes that all facts pled by the plaintiff are true, and determines whether the claims and facts as stated plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief. Id. The court does not view evidence when making a determination under Rule 12(b)(6) because “the court’s task is to test the legal feasibility of the complaint without weighing the evidence that might be offered to support or contradict it.” Lotus v. F.D.I.C., 989 F.Supp.2d 483, 491 (D.S.C. 2013). However, when evaluating a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56, the court is required to view the evidence, and determine whether there is a genuine dispute as to the material facts giving rise to the claims for relief. If there is no ...


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