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Harvey v. Saluda Smiles Family Dentistry

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

December 28, 2016

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

          ORDER AND OPINION

         Plaintiff Stephanie Harvey (“Harvey” or “Plaintiff”) filed this action against Defendants Saluda Smiles Family Dentistry (“SSFD”), Carolina Dental Alliance (“CDA”), and VSM Management, LLC (“VML”), (collectively “Defendants”) alleging that she was subjected to discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment in violation of the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-2000e17. (ECF No. 1 at 4 ¶ 22-5 ¶ 27.) Plaintiff also alleged that she was discharged in violation of public policy and was defamed. (Id. at 6 ¶ 28-7 ¶ 38.)

         This matter is before the court on Defendants' Motion for Reconsideration of the court's Order entered on September 28, 2016 (the “September Order”), pursuant to Rule 54(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (ECF No. 59.) Specifically, Defendants seek reconsideration of the court's decision in the September Order (ECF No. 53) to deny Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 35) as to Plaintiff's claim for retaliation as to her termination. (ECF No. 59 at 11-16 & 19.) Plaintiff opposes Defendants' Motion for Reconsideration asserting that the court “correctly denied summary judgment as to the Plaintiff's Title VII retaliation claim.” (ECF No. 61 at 8.) For the reasons stated below, the court GRANTS Defendants' Motion for Reconsideration.

         I. BACKGROUND FACTS RELEVANT TO PENDING MOTION[1]

         Plaintiff began working for the entity that became SSFD in 2005. (ECF No. 37-1 at 2:63:18-22.) In January 2012, CDA purchased SSFD and then sold it to VML in late December 2012.[2] (ECF Nos. 35-4 at 1 ¶ 2, 2 ¶ 4 & 35-5 at 2 ¶ 3.) When VML acquired the assets of SSFD, its employees became employees of VML. (ECF No. 35-3 at 2 ¶ 3.) SSFD had employed less than 10 employees at all times prior to the sale. (ECF Nos. 35-5 at 1 ¶ 2 & 35-4 at 1 ¶ 3.) Under VML's ownership, Operations Manager Jennifer Mitchell (“Mitchell”) was responsible for SSFD's “day to day management of administrative issues and personnel disputes.” (ECF No. 35-3 at 3 ¶ 9.) Mitchell reported directly to Mark Lakis (“Lakis”), VML's Chief Executive Officer. (ECF No. 35-4 at 2 ¶ 6.)

         In July of 2012, CDA hired Dr. Seung Kyu Choi (“Dr. Choi”) as the dentist for SSFD. (ECF No. 37-3 at 4:12:20-23.) Staff members of SSFD expressed their concerns about Dr. Choi to Office Manager Amanda Hayes (“Hayes”) because Dr. Choi “was inexperienced, did not seem to know what he was doing, was unable to communicate effectively, and was making mistakes.” (ECF No. 35-5 at 2 ¶ 7.) “Plaintiff alleges that she and Dr. Choi had a difficult working relationship.” (ECF No. 53 at 2.) In or around late 2012 or early 2013, Plaintiff filed a complaint about Dr. Choi with the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation (“LLR”) regarding patient care concerns. (ECF No. 37-1 at 16:131:8-18:136:19.) Plaintiff asserts that only she and Hayes knew that Plaintiff was responsible for the LLR complaint. (Id. at 18:136:6-19.) Hayes admits that she became aware “that the LLR was investigating Dr. Choi, ” but Hayes denies either knowing that Plaintiff was responsible for the LLR complaint or telling anyone that Plaintiff was said complainant. (ECF Nos. 35-5 at 4 ¶ 12 & 37-5 at 21:41:13-21.) Mitchell and Lakis deny that they were aware during Plaintiff's employment that she had made a complaint to the LLR. (See ECF Nos. 35-3 at 6 ¶ 19 & 35-4 at 5 ¶ 19.)

         On or about April 18, 2013, Plaintiff alleges that she told Hayes that she had filed a Charge of Discrimination with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Plaintiff admits that she asked Hayes to not tell anyone about the Charge and that Hayes was the only person that knew about it. (ECF No. 37-1 at 26:170:6-14 & 28:178:5-6.) Hayes denies that she was told about Plaintiff's Charge on April 18, 2013. (ECF No. 35-5 at 7 ¶ 24.) Thereafter, on April 24, 2013, Plaintiff signed the document purporting to be her Charge (and filed it sometime thereafter with the EEOC and the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission (“SCHAC”)) asserting as follows:

I have been subjected to harassment from July 20, 2012 through March 21, 2013, and continuing, by Dr. Seung Kyu Choi. Dr. Choi treats a similarly situated white employee more favorably.
I, therefore, believe that I have been discriminated against on the basis of my race (black) in violation of the S.C. Human Affairs Law, as amended and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended.

(ECF No. 35-2 at 47.[3])

         Plaintiff was terminated on April 25, 2013. (ECF No. 37-1 at 23:159:18-24:160:2.) At the time of her termination, VML was Plaintiff's employer. (ECF No. 35-5 at 2 ¶ 3.) Hayes, Lakis, and Mitchell all assert that they became aware of Plaintiff's Charge on or after May 8, 2013, when Defendants received correspondence from the SCHAC. (ECF Nos. 35-5 at 6 ¶ 22, 35-3 at 6 ¶ 18 & 35-4 at 5 ¶ 18.) Additionally, Hayes asserts that until she received the correspondence from the SCHAC on May 8, 2013, she “never told anyone that . . . [Plaintiff] had complained of discrimination or that I thought . . . [Plaintiff] planned to file a complaint of discrimination.” (ECF No. 35-5 at 7 ¶ 24.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD AND ANALYSIS

         In the September Order, the court made the following observations in denying Defendants summary judgment on Plaintiff's retaliation claim:

On April 4, 2013, it was reported that Smith was disrespectful to Dr. Choi in front of patients. Mitchell reports that she spoke with Smith and informed her that if the behavior occurred again, she would be terminated immediately. (ECF No. 37-4 at 65.) As a result of that incident, Smith signed a written warning document. (Id.) On April 14, 2013, Mitchell sent an e-mail to Lakis noting that Smith's attitude had changed, but that she had a strategy to help improve Plaintiff's attitude, which she would explain over the phone or in person. (ECF No. 37-8 at 11.) On April 22, 2013, Mitchell sent another e-mail to Lakis indicating that she had discussed different options with Plaintiff and Smith. (Id. at 14.) At that time, it appears that she was considering moving Plaintiff to a position at the front desk, and considering either firing Smith or giving her one more chance. (Id.) Reportedly, on the morning of April 24, 2013, Mitchell asserts that management made the decision to terminate Plaintiff due to her conduct. (ECF No. 37-4 at 65.) However, unlike Smith, there is no indication that Plaintiff was ever given a written warning, nor is there any indication prior to April 24, 2013, that Defendants were considering terminating Plaintiff even though Mitchell allegedly had a conversation warning Plaintiff on the same day Smith signed her written warning document (ECF No. 37-4 at 48). Additionally, there is no evidence-not even in Defendants' official response to the SCHAC, (see ECF No. 37-7)-of an intervening incident between April 22, 2013, and April 24, 2013, that might have caused Defendants to decide that it was better to terminate Plaintiff than move her to the front desk. Based on the lack of evidence documenting Defendants' plans to terminate Plaintiff compared to the documentation regarding the possible termination of Smith as well as the timing of Plaintiff's firing, it reasonably appears to this court that Defendants' motives for terminating Plaintiff were questionable enough for Plaintiff's claim to survive summary judgment. Accordingly, the court finds that there is a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether there is a casual connection between Defendants' alleged knowledge that Plaintiff filed a Charge with the EEOC and Defendants' alleged retaliation to the filing of the Charge by terminating Plaintiff.

(ECF No. 53 at 13-14.) Defendants seek reconsideration of the foregoing pursuant to Rule 54.

         A. Applicable Standard ...


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