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Odom v. City of Columbia Police Department

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

July 11, 2017




         Plaintiffs filed this case as an employment discrimination action. The matter is before the Court for review of the Report and Recommendation (Report) of the United States Magistrate Judge suggesting Defendant's motion for summary judgment be denied as to Plaintiff Odom's retaliation claim and granted as to all other claims. The Report was made in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636 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 the Court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270 (1976). The Court is charged with making a de novo determination of those portions of the Report to which specific objection is made, and the Court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation of the Magistrate Judge or recommit the matter with instructions. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         The Magistrate Judge filed the Report on February 16, 2017, Defendant filed its objections on March 22, 2017, Plaintiffs filed their objections on March 23, 2017, Plaintiffs filed their response on April 4, 2017, and Defendant filed its response on April 5, 2017. The Court has carefully reviewed the parties' voluminous submissions, but holds the arguments contained therein to be without merit. Therefore, it will enter judgment accordingly.

         Defendant's Objections

         First, Defendant maintains "[t]he Magistrate Judge erred in finding that [Plaintiff] Odom established a prima facie case of adverse employment action required to present her retaliation claim to a jury." Defendant's Objections 5 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         In an instance such as this when the plaintiff lacks direct evidence of her retaliation claims, the burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973) applies. The McDonnell Douglas framework involves three steps: (1) the plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of retaliation; (2) the burden of production then shifts to the employer to articulate a non-retaliatory reason for the adverse action; and (3) the burden then shifts back to the plaintiff to prove by a preponderance of the evidence the stated reason for the adverse employment action is a pretext and that the true reason is retaliatory. See Tex. Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 252-53 (1981).

         To establish a prima facie case of retaliation, the plaintiff must demonstrate "(i) that she engaged in protected activity, (ii) that her employer took adverse action against her, and (iii) that a causal relationship existed between the protected activity and the adverse employment activity.” Foster v. Univ. of Md.BE. Shore, 787 F.3d 243, 250 (4th Cir. 2015). The Supreme Court defines an adverse action in this context to be something that "might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination." Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 68 (2006) (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The Court notes "the significance of any given act of retaliation will often depend upon the particular circumstances." Id. at 69. In other words, "[c]ontext matters. The real social impact of workplace behavior often depends on a constellation of surrounding circumstances, expectations, and relationships . . . not fully captured by a simple recitation of the words used or the physical acts performed. . . . [A]n act that would be immaterial in some situations is material in others." Id. (citations omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). "Whether a particular reassignment is materially adverse depends upon the circumstances of the particular case, and should be judged from the perspective of a reasonable person in the plaintiff's position, considering all the circumstances." Id. at 71 (citations omitted) (quotation marks).

         To the extent Defendant argues Plaintiff Odom's transfer was merely a lateral one, the Court notes "[t]he law is unsettled concerning when a lateral transfer constitutes an adverse employment decision." Devine v. Thalhimers, 977 F.2d 572 (4th Cir. 1992) (table). For instance, the Seventh Circuit has held transfer involving same pay and benefits but objective loss of prestige such as removal from private office is adverse employment action, Collins v. Illinois, 830 F.2d 692, 704 (7th Cir. 1987); but the Eleventh Circuit has stated the temporary transfer from foreman to plant guard is not a demotion where no loss of pay or benefits results, Hudson v. Southern Ductile Casting Corp., 849 F.2d 1372, 1375 (11th Cir. 1988).

         On the record before it, having taken all of the law as set forth above into consideration, the Court is unable to hold as a matter of law Plaintiff whether Odom's transfer amounts to an adverse employment action. This is a question best left for the finder of fact to answer. Hence, the Court will overrule this objection.

         Second, Defendant argues "[t]he Magistrate Judge erred in finding that the City failed to offer a legitimate non-retaliatory reason for reassigning [Plaintiff] Odom from the Crime Prevention Unit." Defendant's Objections 6.

         When this Court "review[s] the employer's articulated reasons for [the employment action] and the plaintiff's refutation thereof, [it] must keep in mind that Title VII is not a vehicle for substituting the judgment of a [C]ourt for that of the employer." DeJarnette v. Corning Inc., 133 F.3d 293, 298-99 (4th Cir. 1998) (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). Put another way, "this Court does not sit as a kind of super-personnel department weighing the prudence of employment decisions made by firms charged with employment discrimination." Id. at 299 (citations omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). Instead, the Court's "sole concern is whether the [the employment action] was discriminatory." Id. (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). For this reason, "when an employer articulates a reason [for its employment decision] not forbidden by law, it is not [the Court's] province to decide whether the reason was wise, fair, or even correct, ultimately, so long as it truly was the reason for the [employment action]." Id. (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Melron J. Kelly testified he reassigned Plaintiff Odom "[t]o make sure that the employee didn't feel threatened and . . . she was okay." ECF No. 31 at 14:7-8. This is Defendant's proffered legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for transferring Plaintiff Odom from one unit to the other. But, as discussed below, the Court is unable to hold as a matter of law the reason given by Defendant "truly was the reason for the plaintiff's ...

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