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Tribble-Toney v. Palmetto Health Baptist Hospital

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

September 26, 2016

Hilda Renee Tribble-Toney, Plaintiff,
v.
Palmetto Health Baptist Hospital, Defendant.

          ORDER

          TERRY L. WOOTEN, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         The Plaintiff, Angela Davis (“Plaintiff”), filed this action against her former employer, the Defendant, Palmetto Health Baptist Hospital (“Defendant” or “Palmetto Health”), alleging claims of race discrimination based on wrongful discharge and hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000, et seq. (“Title VII”), and intentional infliction of emotional distress. (Doc. #1).[1]

         Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on February 22, 2016. (Doc. #20). Plaintiff filed a response in opposition on March 28, 2016 (Doc. #23), to which Defendant replied on April 7, 2016 (Doc. #24). This matter is now before the Court for review of the Report and Recommendation (“the Report”) filed on July 14, 2016 by the United States Magistrate Judge to whom this case was assigned pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2), (D.S.C.). (Doc. #25). In the Report, the Magistrate Judge recommends that this Court grant summary judgment in favor of Defendant as to each of Plaintiff s claims, and dismiss this case in its entirety. (Doc. #25). More specifically, as to Plaintiff's hostile work environment claim, the Magistrate Judge found that a question of material fact exists as to whether the offensive statements and other conduct of Plaintiffs direct supervisor were sufficiently severe and pervasive to constitute a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. (Doc. #25 at12). However, the Report ultimately recommended that this Court grant summary judgment in favor of Defendant on that claim based on a finding that Plaintiff did not establish that the supervisor's conduct was imputable to Defendant. (See Doc. #25 at 13). Plaintiff filed timely objections to the Report on July 31, 2016 (Doc. #26), to which Defendant replied on August 18, 2016 (Doc. #27). Defendant's motion is now ripe for disposition.

         This Court is charged with conducting a de novo review of any portion of the Magistrate Judge's Report to which a specific objection is registered, and may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendations contained in that report. 28 U.S.C. § 636. In conducting this review, the Court applies the following standard:

The magistrate judge makes only a recommendation to the Court, to which any party may file written objections . . . . The Court is not bound by the recommendation of the magistrate judge but, instead, retains responsibility for the final determination. The Court is required to make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified findings or recommendation as to which an objection is made. However, the Court is not required to review, under a de novo or any other standard, the factual or legal conclusions of the magistrate judge as to those portions of the report and recommendation to which no objections are addressed. While the level of scrutiny entailed by the Court's review of the Report thus depends on whether or not objections have been filed, in either case, the Court is free, after review, to accept, reject, or modify any of the magistrate judge's findings or recommendations.

Wallace v. Hous. Auth. of City of Columbia, 791 F.Supp. 137, 138 (D.S.C. 1992) (citations omitted).

         This Court has carefully reviewed the Report, Plaintiffs objections thereto, Defendant's reply, as well as the memoranda and record in accordance with the standard set forth in Wallace. After careful consideration, the Court accepts in part and rejects in part the Report and Recommendation, for the reasons and to the extent outlined herein. (Doc. #42). Specifically, the Court accepts the Magistrate Judge's recommendation that this Court grant summary judgment in favor of Defendant as to Plaintiff's claims of: (1) wrongful discharge in violation of Title VII; and (2) intentional infliction of emotional distress. However, for the reasons discussed below, the Court declines to accept the Report's recommendation to grant summary judgment in favor of Defendant on Plaintiffs claim for hostile work environment in violation of Title VII.[2]

         As noted, after a careful de novo review, this Court finds that the Report accurately summarizes the applicable law with regard to Plaintiff's claim for wrongful discharge and Plaintiff's claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress under South Carolina law. Therefore, for the reasons articulated by the Magistrate Judge, Defendant is entitled to summary judgment on those two claims. However, the Court declines to accept the Report's recommendation as to Plaintiffs claim for hostile work environment, and instead finds that genuine issues of material fact preclude the grant of summary judgment in favor of Defendant on that claim. Although the Magistrate Judge concluded that an issue of fact existed with regard to whether the conduct of Plaintiff's direct supervisor was sufficiently severe and pervasive to constitute a hostile work environment under Title VII, the Report recommends granting summary judgment in favor of Defendant on that claim based on the issue of imputability of conduct to Defendant. For the reasons articulated herein, Defendant's motion for summary judgment is denied as to Plaintiff's hostile work environment claim.

         “A hostile work environment claim is composed of a series of separate acts that collectively constitute one ‘unlawful employment practice.'” Guessous v. Fairview Prop. Investments, LLC, 828 F.3d 208 (4th Cir. 2016) (quoting Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101, 116- 17 (2002)). To survive summary judgment on her claim of a racially hostile work environment, a plaintiff must demonstrate that a reasonable jury could find: “there is (1) unwelcome conduct; (2) that is based on the plaintiff's . . . race; (3) which is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the plaintiff's conditions of employment and to create an abusive work environment; and (4) which is imputable to the employer.” Boyer-Liberto v. Fontainebleau Corp., 786 F.3d 264, 271 (4th Cir. 2015) (en banc) (internal quotations omitted) (quoting Okoli v. City of Balt., 648 F.3d 216, 220 (4th Cir. 2011)). A plaintiff asserting a hostile work environment claim “may not prevail absent sufficient evidence of a fourth element: that ‘there is some basis for imposing liability' on the employer” for a supervisor's conduct. Spriggs v. Diamond Auto Glass, 242 F.3d 179, 184 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Causey v. Balog, 162 F.3d 795, 801 (4th Cir. 1998)).

         The Report and Recommendation of the Magistrate Judge thoroughly outlines the allegations and arguments of the parties, and the recitation of Plaintiff's allegations in the Report are incorporated herein by reference. Generally, as to the hostile work environment claim, Plaintiff alleges that her direct supervisor, Tammy Herring (hereinafter “Herring”), made offensive, racially based statements and otherwise behaved in a way sufficient to adversely affect or alter the conditions of Plaintiff's employment such that it created an abusive and hostile work environment. Plaintiff was employed with Defendant in various positions for almost seventeen years, beginning in 1996. (Doc. #25 at 2). Over the more than four years of employment during which Herring was her direct supervisor, Plaintiff alleges that Herring forwarded “maybe less than ten” (10) emails to Plaintiff around the fall of 2009 that reflected African-American stereotypes. (Doc. #20-2 at 25, Plaintiff Depo. ln. 15). Plaintiff stated in her deposition that “two or three” of the forwarded emails involved references to “watermelon” and “fried chicken” and “one or two” emails referred to the White House as the “Black House” and referenced President Obama. (Doc. #20-2 at 26 lns. 17-25, at 27 lns. 1, 11-18). Plaintiff alleges that the emails were forwarded to her by Herring sometime after August 25, 2009. (Doc. #20-2 at 29 lns. 11-23). Plaintiff testified in her deposition that after receiving the forwarded emails from Herring, Plaintiff eventually approached Herring (her supervisor) directly and told Herring that she thought the emails were offensive. (Doc. #20-2 at 30, 31). After that interaction, the record reflects that Herring stopped forwarding Plaintiff emails unrelated to her work. (Doc. #20-2 at 30, 31). Further, Plaintiff stated in her deposition that she did not receive any offensive emails or forwards from Herring or any other employee or colleague after she told Herring she was offended. (Doc. #20-2 at 32, lns. 9-15; Q: “Did you ever get any of those kinds of jokes, emails or things from Tammy ever again?” A: “I don't recall I did, no.” Q: “Did you ever get any jokes, emails, or things of that nature from anyone else at Palmetto Health after that?” A: “No.”)).

         In addition to the offensive emails, Plaintiff asserts she overheard Herring refer to President Obama as a “monkey” when she saw him on the television. (Doc. #20-2 at 32-33). Plaintiff further alleges that Herring commented offensively about interracial couples and asked Plaintiff on one occasion why “people so black” get tattoos when you cannot see the tattoos on their skin. (Doc. #20-2 at 32-34). Plaintiff admits in deposition testimony that she did not express to Herring that she was offended by any of Herring's other statements or actions other than the email forwards. (Doc. #20-2 at 36). Based primarily on the foregoing allegations, Plaintiff asserts a claim for hostile work environment against Defendant.

         As an initial matter, this Court notes that it is undisputed that Herring's conduct and statements were both unwelcome and based on race. Accordingly, the evaluation of Plaintiff's hostile work environment claim at this summary judgment stage focuses on the third and fourth elements: whether the alleged harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive, and whether liability for Herring's conduct should be imputed to Defendant.

         First, this Court agrees with the Magistrate Judge's legal analysis and recommendation with regard to the third element of Plaintiff's hostile work environment claim, which requires that the harassment be severe and pervasive. In considering the totality of the circumstances and viewing the record evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiff as the non-movant, an issue of material fact exists as to whether the conduct and statements of Herring were sufficiently “severe and pervasive” to constitute a hostile work environment under the standard set forth by case law and Title VII. See Guessous v. Fairview Prop. Investments, LLC, 828 F.3d 208 (4th Cir. 2016) (citing Spriggs v. Diamond Auto Glass, 242 F.3d 179, 184 (4th Cir. 2001) (emphasizing that a district court must “take into account the totality of the circumstances” at this stage of the analysis)). A reasonable jury could conclude that Herring's conduct was sufficiently severe and pervasive to create a hostile work environment for Plaintiff within the meaning of Title VII.

         A number of Fourth Circuit cases support this analysis. In connection with the “severe and pervasive” element of a hostile work ...


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