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Lewis v. Richland County Recreation Commission

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

October 31, 2016

TAURUS LEWIS, Plaintiff,
v.
RICHLAND COUNTY RECREATION COMMISSION, JAMES BROWN, III, TARA DICKERSON and DAVID STRINGER, in their individual capacities, Defendants.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          Thomas E. Rogers, III United States Magistrate Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This action arises out of Plaintiff's employment with the Richland County Recreation Commission. Plaintiff alleges race discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), 42 U.S.C. § 2000(e) et seq., violation of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq., and state law causes of action for defamation and civil conspiracy. Presently before the court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Document # 5) Plaintiff's claims for defamation and civil conspiracy. All pretrial proceedings in this case were referred to the undersigned pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) and (B) and Local Rule 73.02(B)(2)(g), DSC. This report and recommendation is entered for review by the district judge.

         II. FACTUAL ALLEGATIONS

         At all times relevant to the allegations in the amended complaint, Plaintiff, an African-American male, was employed by the Richland County Recreation Commission (RCRC) as the Division Head of Facility Operations. Am. Compl. ¶ 1. Defendant Brown is the Executive Director of the RCRC, Defendant Stringer is the Division Head of Human Resources for the RCRC, and Defendant Dickerson is the Chief of Staff of the RCRC. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 3-5. Plaintiff has been employed with the RCRC for approximately fifteen years. Prior to December of 2015, he reported to the Assistant Executive Director, who reported to Brown, the Executive Director. Am. Compl. ¶ 9. Plaintiff alleges that Brown would often tell him things such as Plaintiff is “too nice and everyone likes him, ” and that Brown wanted Plaintiff to “treat them like slaves and whip them into shape.” Am. Compl. ¶ 10. Plaintiff alleges that Brown would often make threats of termination, veiled or otherwise, in an attempt to encourage Plaintiff to take certain actions that Brown desired. Brown would tell Plaintiff to “think about his family” or “think about his future, ” which Plaintiff understood as threats of demotion or termination if Plaintiff did not do what Brown wanted him to do. Plaintiff alleges that these threats usually occurred in circumstances where Brown wanted to protect and insulate his family members and friends that worked at the RCRC. Am. Compl. ¶ 11.

         On November 30, 2015, Brown called a meeting with Plaintiff and the Assistant Executive Director, Kenya Bryant[1], during which Brown stated that they did not have faith in him anymore. Am. Compl. ¶ 12. Plaintiff alleges that on December 4, 2015, Brown told RCRC employees that he would fire both Plaintiff and Bryant. Am. Compl. ¶ 13. On December 11, 2015, an investigation into sexual harassment claims made against Brown began. Stringer informed Plaintiff he would likely be called as a witness. Am. Compl. ¶ 14. Plaintiff participated in the investigation upon request, and both Brown and Stringer were aware that Plaintiff spoke with the investigator. Am. Compl. ¶ 15.

         On January 16, 2016, Brown called an unscheduled staff meeting during which, Plaintiff alleges, he acted hostile and made threats and inappropriate statements. Plaintiff alleges that during the meeting Brown announced that the RCRC Board wanted there to be a buffer between him and the staff and that Dickerson was promoted to a newly created position of Chief of Staff. Among other threats and inappropriate statements, Plaintiff alleges that Brown stated if he witnessed staff speaking to Plaintiff he would suspend them for five days or fire them. Am. Compl. ¶ 18. Plaintiff alleges Brown said a board member told him that “black people don't listen to black people” and that he needs a white face, i.e., Dickerson, to “crack the whip” on the black people. Am. Compl. ¶ 19. Once Dickerson was appointed as Chief of Staff, Plaintiff began reporting to her instead of the Assistant Executive Director. Am. Compl. ¶ 20.

         Plaintiff alleges that on March 21, 2016, the Board[2] met for their regularly scheduled meeting and took an executive session to discuss a personnel matter. No action was taken, but a special called meeting was scheduled for April 4, 2016. Am. Compl. ¶ 21. On April 4, 2016, the Board met to discuss the personnel matter in executive session. Board Member Furgess motioned to support Brown, which passed with a 5-2 vote. Am. Compl. ¶ 22.

         On April 5, 2016, Plaintiff was suspended with pay from his position because of an investigation regarding comments allegedly made by Plaintiff to another RCRC employee, which Plaintiff denies, that Brown was about to be terminated due to videos on social media. Plaintiff's badge, cell phone and keys were taken and his email was disabled. Plaintiff alleges that Brown, Stringer, and Dickerson, and others pressured and threatened an RCRC employee into giving a false statement about Plaintiff so it could be used to terminate him. Plaintiff alleges the employee later recanted his statement and said that it was false. Am. Compl. ¶ 23.

         Plaintiff informed Stringer that he would like to meet with his attorney present to discuss the alleged comment. Plaintiff alleges that instead of meeting to investigate the comment, Stringer and Dickerson issued a letter to Plaintiff dated April 14, 2016, which demoted Plaintiff effective April 22, 2016, from the Division Head of Facility Operations to Director of Maintenance, where he would work new hours (7:30-3:30), report to the Maintenance Shop, and wear a uniform. Stringer and Dickerson gave Plaintiff until 5:00 the following day to consider the position. Am. Compl. 24. Plaintiff alleges that he suffered situational anxiety and depression as a result of his treatment by Defendants, and his doctor placed him on medical leave beginning April 14, 2016. Am. Compl. ¶ 25.

         On April 14, 2016, Stringer sent Plaintiff another letter regarding Plaintiff's medical leave, in which he stated that Plaintiff was not a “key employee” and RCRC had not determined that restoring him to employment at the conclusion of the medical leave would cause substantial and grievous economic harm to the agency. Am. Compl. ¶ 27. Plaintiff filed a grievance as to the demotion, stating that it was unfounded and retaliatory. Am. Compl. ¶ 26. Plaintiff alleged that the action was merely an excuse for Defendants to terminate him and further retaliate. Am. Compl. ¶ 28. On May 17, 2015, Plaintiff was notified that he was now considered a “key employee” under the FMLA and that reinstating him to the Division Head position would result in substantial and grievous economic injury to RCRC operations. They also informed Plaintiff that the demoted Director position was no longer available. Am. Compl. ¶ 29.

         Plaintiff alleges that RCRC and Brown and Stringer and other RCRC officials published false statements to other RCRC employees, Board members, and others, accusing Plaintiff of spreading rumors and false information about Brown. Plaintiff alleges they also accused Plaintiff of insubordination and incompetence. Am. Compl. ¶ 31.

         III.STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Defendants seek dismissal of Plaintiff's defamation and civil conspiracy claims pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). A Rule 12(b)(6) motion examines whether Plaintiff has stated a claim upon which relief can be granted. The United States Supreme Court has made clear that, under Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim that is plausible on its face. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009); Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 ...


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