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James v. Richland County Recreation Commission

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

November 1, 2016

ANDREA FRIPP JAMES, Plaintiff,
v.
RICHLAND COUNTY RECREATION COMMISSION, JAMES BROWN, III, MARIE GREEN, BARBARA MICKENS, 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 sexual harassment and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), 42 U.S.C. § 2000(e) et seq. as well as state law causes of action for defamation and civil conspiracy. Presently before the court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Document # 30) 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 set forth in the amended complaint, Plaintiff was employed as the Division Head of Financial Operations for the Richland County Recreation Commission (RCRC). 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 Defendants Green and Mickens serve on the board for the RCRC. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 3-6. Prior to December 2015, the Plaintiff reported to the Assistant Executive Director who then reported to Defendant Brown, the Executive Director. Am. Compl. ¶ 12. Plaintiff alleges that Brown sexually harassed her on numerous occasions and that she complained to Stringer in human resources to no avail. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 13-16.

         In 2014, the board received anonymous letters complaining about Brown and the RCRC, but Brown made it clear that he had at least four votes on the board to avoid any action against him. He stated that he helped Green and Mickens financially and that other members of the board, Furgess and Martin, were on his side. On September 22, 2014, a motion was passed by a 5-2 vote to hire an attorney to conduct an investigation of Brown. However, Martin and Furgess later rescinded their vote and a new motion to rescind the earlier decision for an investigation, passed by a 4-3 vote. Brown told Plaintiff that he was the most powerful man in South Carolina and could not be touched. Am. Compl. ¶ 17.

         In September of 2015, Plaintiff refused to sign a blank purchase order for Erica Smalls, the Human Resources Manager. Soon thereafter, Brown directed that all purchase orders should go to him. Plaintiff met with Brown to voice her concerns over the arrangement and her concerns that Brown was telling others that she and her supervisor were having an inappropriate relationship. Brown told Plaintiff it hurt his feelings when she went into her supervisor's office, and issued a directive that the supervisor was not to go into Plaintiff's office. Am. Compl. ¶ 18.

         Brown continued to make false comments that Plaintiff was having an inappropriate relationship with her supervisor and that she refused to speak to Brown and attempted to get one of Plaintiff's subordinates to make negative comments about Plaintiff. Am. Compl. ¶ 19-20. In December of 2015, Brown removed the finance department from under her current supervisor and placed it directly under himself. He also continued to approach Plaintiff's subordinate, who complained to Stringer that she did not want to be involved. The subordinate was then called into a meeting with Stringer and Brown, during which Brown continued to make statements regarding an inappropriate relationship between Plaintiff and her former supervisor and tried to get the subordinate to say that Plaintiff was mistreating her. Am. Compl. ¶ 21. On numerous occasions, Brown made false statements regarding an intimate relationship between Plaintiff and her former supervisor to other RCRC employees and board members. Am. Compl. ¶ 22. Plaintiff filed a written complaint with Stringer in December of 2015, alleging a hostile work environment, sexual harassment, retaliation, defamation, and being asked to do things contrary to RCRC policies and procedures that were not in RCRC's best interests. Am. Compl. ¶ 23.

         RCRC hired a third party attorney, Linda Edwards, to investigate the complaints against Brown. Edwards interviewed Plaintiff and many other employees regarding the allegations against Brown. The report was presented to the board and the board passed a vote of confidence in favor of Brown by a 5-2 vote. Both Green and Mickens have acted openly hostile toward Plaintiff since December of 2015. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 24-25.

         In January of 2016, Brown called a staff meeting, during which he stated that the board wanted to have a buffer between Brown and the staff, and Tara Dickerson was promoted to a newly created position of Chief of Staff. Am. Compl. ¶ 26. Thereafter, Brown and Stringer began questioning why the Foundation, the fund raising arm of the RCRC, reported to Plaintiff. Brown and Stringer began calling Plaintiff's staff, intimidating them about the Foundation and saying that they, along with Green, were going to start coming to the Foundation's board meetings. On February 8, 2016, Brown directed that the Foundation would no longer report to Plaintiff but to Dickerson. Am. Compl. ¶ 30.

         Plaintiff took FMLA leave beginning May 19, 2016, with the intent to return on June 9, 2016. During her leave, Plaintiff received a letter from the RCRC stating that it may refuse to reinstate her to her position at the conclusion of her leave. As a result, Plaintiff returned to work early, on May 26, 2016. Am. Compl. ¶ 33.

         Law Enforcement began an investigation into Brown and others related to the RCRC. In June of 2016, the Richland County Council advised that they would withhold funding (over what is required by law) from the RCRC until an external, independant audit is conducted. Despite the investigation and allegations of misconduct, Brown remained in his position as Executive Director. On June 21, 2016, the Richland County Legislation Delegation recommended that Brown be placed on suspension with pay pending the investigations. On June 30, 2016, the media reported complaints made by a whistleblower, which included allegations of sexual comments, bullying, and nepotism. Brown took a leave of absence with pay beginning July 1, 2016. On July 8, 2016, Plaintiff was informed that she was being placed on leave of absence with pay beginning July 11, 2016, the time the audit of the RCRC was scheduled to begin. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 35-36.

         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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