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Harvey v. Saluda Smiles Family Dentistry

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Anderson/Greenwood Division

September 28, 2016

Stephanie Harvey, Plaintiff,
v.
Saluda Smiles Family Dentistry, Carolina Dental Alliance, and VSM Management, LLC, Defendants.

          ORDER AND OPINION

         This matter is before the court on the Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 35) filed by Defendants Saluda Smiles Family Dentistry, Carolina Dental Alliance, and VSM Management, LLC (collectively “Defendants”). 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 March 30, 2016, the Magistrate Judge issued a Report and Recommendation (“Report”) recommending that the court grant Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 43.) For the reasons stated herein, the court GRANTS IN PART AND REJECTS IN PART the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation. (ECF No. 43.) Therefore, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 35) is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

         I. RELEVANT FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Stephanie Harvey (“Plaintiff”) began working for Saluda Smiles Family Dentistry, P.A. (“Saluda Smiles”) in 2005. (ECF No. 43 at 2.) In January of 2012, Carolina Dental Alliance purchased Saluda Smiles, and in July of 2012, Dr. Seung Kyu Choi (“Dr. Choi”) became the practice's dentist. (Id.) Later that year, VSM Management, LLC (“VSM”) purchased the practice. (Id.)

         Plaintiff alleges that she and Dr. Choi had a difficult working relationship. Specifically, Plaintiff reported that she felt “nitpicked” and singled-out by Dr. Choi, and felt that he was trying to find something wrong with her work. (ECF No. 37-5 at 20, 24.) On one occasion, Dr. Choi dropped an instrument on the floor, and Plaintiff jokingly made a comment about it; in response, Dr. Choi reacted in a condescending manner and reprimanded her in front of the patient. (ECF No. 37-5 at 18.) Plaintiff and Dr. Choi discussed the event with Amanda Hayes (“Hayes”), the office manager, and an informal incident report was created documenting the event. (Id.) On another occasion, Dr. Choi addressed Plaintiff about her organization of trays and the necessity to keep her area clean. (ECF No. 43 at 2.) Plaintiff, once again, went to Hayes and created an informal incident report documenting that Plaintiff felt “nitpicked” by Dr. Choi and that Dr. Choi felt that Plaintiff was rude. (Id.)

         In early 2013, Jennifer Mitchell (“Mitchell”) became the operations manager for VSM. Mitchell was responsible for visiting the various offices owned by VSM and addressing concerns of their administrative management. (Id.) Hayes informed Mitchell that the office employees, including Plaintiff, were concerned about Dr. Choi because he made mistakes and had difficulty communicating with the staff. (Id.) At one point, Hayes sought Mitchell's advice on improving office morale and relayed that the employees in the office were “at their wits end with [Dr. Choi], ” so they would not want to hear that it would be their job to boost his confidence and make him happy. (ECF No. 37-5 at 47-48.) In further attempts to remedy Plaintiff's specific situation, Mitchell reports that she had a conversation with Plaintiff regarding her attitude toward Dr. Choi. (ECF No. 43 at 3.)

         In February of 2013, Plaintiff filed a complaint against Dr. Choi with the Dental Board at the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation (“LLR”). (Id.) Subsequently, on April 24, 2013, Plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination (“Charge”) with the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission (“SCHAC”) and the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). (Id.) On April 25, 2013, Plaintiff was terminated during a meeting with Hayes and Mitchell. (Id.)

         On May 16, 2014, Plaintiff filed this action alleging race discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation claims pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended (“Title VII”), and pendent state law claims of public policy discharge and defamation. (ECF No. 1.) On November 16, 2015, Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 35.) Plaintiff filed a Response opposing the Motion on December 3, 2015 (ECF No. 36), along with additional attachments (ECF No. 37.) The Magistrate Judge issued her Report on March 30, 2016. (ECF No. 43.) Plaintiff was advised of her right to file objections to the Report. (ECF No. 43). Plaintiff filed Objections to the Report and Recommendation of Magistrate Judge (“Objections”) on April 19, 2016. (ECF No. 44.) Subsequently, Defendants filed a Reply to Plaintiff's Objections. (ECF No. 45.)

         II. JURISDICTION

         This court has jurisdiction over Plaintiff's Title VII claim via 28 U.S.C. § 1331, as it arises under a law of the United States, and also via 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(3), which empowers district courts to hear claims “brought under” Title VII. Additionally, the court may properly hear Plaintiff's state law claims based on supplemental jurisdiction since they are “so related to claims in the action within such original jurisdiction that . . . it form[s] part of the same case or controversy . . . .” 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a).

         III. 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). In this case, Plaintiff timely filed objections to the Report, which are addressed below. (ECF No. 44.)

         Summary judgment should be granted “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is “material” if proof of its existence or non-existence would affect the disposition of the case under the applicable law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-49 (1986). A genuine question of material fact exists where, after reviewing the record as a whole, the court finds that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Newport News Holdings Corp. v. Virtual City Vision, 650 F.3d 423, 434 (4th Cir. 2011).

         In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, a court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Perini Corp. v. Perini Constr., Inc., 915 F.2d 121, 12324 (4th Cir. 1990). The non-moving party may not oppose a motion for summary judgment with mere allegations or denials of the movant's pleading, but instead must “set forth specific facts” demonstrating a genuine issue for trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986); Shealy v. Winston, 929 F.2d 1009, 1012 (4th Cir. 1991). All that is required is that “sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual dispute be shown to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. “Mere unsupported speculation . . . is not enough to defeat a summary judgment motion.” Ennis v. Nat'l Ass'n of Bus. & Educ. Radio, Inc., 53 F.3d 55, 62 (4th Cir. 1995).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         In her Objections, Plaintiff identifies four areas of the Magistrate Judge's Report to which she objects. First, Plaintiff asserts that the Magistrate Judge erred in finding that Plaintiff failed to exhaust her administrative remedies regarding her race discrimination claim. (ECF No. 44 at 23.) Second, Plaintiff contends that the Magistrate Judge erred in determining that Plaintiff could not establish a causal connection to support her retaliation claim. (Id. at 3-5.) Third, Plaintiff asserts that the Magistrate Judge erred when she failed to consider all of the evidence Plaintiff presented to support her claim that Defendants' articulated reason for terminating Plaintiff was a pretext for retaliation. (Id. at 5-6.) Finally, Plaintiff contends that the Magistrate Judge erred in finding that Plaintiff failed to establish a claim for hostile work environment. (Id. at 6.) 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 Title VII claims. As to Plaintiff's state law claims, the court has reviewed the Report and finds that it is necessary to conduct a de novo review of those claims as well.

         A. Count ...


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