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Stewart v. American Credit Acceptance LLC

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

September 26, 2017

Helwig A. Stewart, Plaintiff,
v.
American Credit Acceptance, LLC, Defendant.

          ORDER

          THE HONORABLE BRUCE HOWE HENDRICKS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court upon Plaintiff Helwig A. Stewart's (“Plaintiff” or “Stewart”) complaint alleging a claim of racial discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and a state law claim for libel or slander per se. On November 7, 2016, Defendant American Credit Acceptance, LLC (“Defendant” or “ACA”) filed a motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff filed a response in opposition to Defendant's motion, and Defendant filed a reply.

         The matter was referred to a United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) and (B) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(g), D.S.C. On July 25, 2017, Magistrate Judge Kevin F. McDonald issued a report and recommendation (“Report”), outlining the issues and recommending that the Court grant Defendant's motion for summary judgment. After being granted an extension of time, Plaintiff filed objections to the Report, and after being granted an extension of time, Defendant filed a reply to Plaintiff's objections.

         STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         I. The Magistrate Judge's Report

         The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this Court. The recommendation has no presumptive weight. The responsibility for making a final determination remains with this Court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270 (1976). The Court is charged with making a de novo determination of any portions of the Report and Recommendation to which a specific objection is made. The Court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation made by the Magistrate Judge or may recommit the matter to the Magistrate Judge with instructions. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The Court need not conduct a de novo review when a party makes only “general and conclusory objections that do not direct the court to a specific error in the magistrate's proposed findings and recommendations.” Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982). In the absence of a timely filed, specific objection, the Magistrate Judge's conclusions are reviewed only for clear error. See Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005).

         II. Summary Judgment

         A court shall grant summary judgment if a party shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The judge is not to weigh the evidence, but rather to determine if there is a genuine issue of fact. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). If no material factual disputes remain, then summary judgment should be granted against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which the party bears the burden of proof. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). All evidence should be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Perini Corp. v. Perini Constr., Inc., 915 F.2d 121, 123-24 (4th Cir. 1990).

         DISCUSSION

         In his written objections, Plaintiff first objects to the Magistrate Judge's recitation of the facts and asserts that the Magistrate Judge failed to consider the facts in the light most favorable to him. Next, Plaintiff objects to the Magistrate Judge's legal conclusions. The Court will consider both Plaintiff's factual objections and his legal objections below.

         I. Plaintiff's Factual Objections

         In the Report, the Magistrate Judge included a detailed, 15-page explanation of the facts presented. As the Magistrate Judge noted, Defendant hired Plaintiff, who is a black male of Jamaican origin, on April 1, 2013, to work as Portfolio Reporting Manager for Spartan Financial, a division of ACA. About two months later, Plaintiff's supervisor, Mark VanGeison, informed Plaintiff that there was a problem at ACA in the Collections Department, and that Plaintiff's name had come up as someone who could help. The next day, Curt Sidden, Chief Executive Officer (“CEO”) of ACA, met with Plaintiff and told him, “I want you to go over there and improve communication, fix the processes, and look at ways you can improve what they are doing.” (ECF No. 59-2 at 40.)

         Chris Shelley, ACA's Director of Servicing at the time, had been interviewing candidates for a new position, Collections Manager. Mr. VanGeison, Mr. Sidden, and Tom Holgate, Chief Operating Officer of ACA, asked Mr. Shelley to interview Plaintiff for the position. Mr. Shelley interviewed Plaintiff, and Mr. Shelley testified that he believed Plaintiff's position was being eliminated but that ACA wanted to retain Plaintiff as an employee because it believed he had good vision and values. According to Mr. Shelley, Plaintiff was “good with people, good with processes, good with the core business.” (ECF No. 56-3 at 49.)

         ACA sent Plaintiff an offer letter for the Collections Manager position on June 20, 2014, and Plaintiff accepted the position. Plaintiff asserts that he informed Mr. Shelley that he was concerned about working in an area where he did not understand the process. Plaintiff began employment as Collections Manager on July 14, 2014. The position reported directly to Mr. Shelley but was only three levels of management below the CEO. Plaintiff was responsible for managing multiple departments, supervisors, team leaders, and approximately 30 to 40 employees.

         On Plaintiff's first day, Mr. Shelley met with Plaintiff to discuss his expectations for Plaintiff's performance. According to Mr. Shelley, he expected Plaintiff to “run it like you own it” and to manage the department with little supervision. (Id. at 54-55.) Plaintiff, however, hoped to have more interaction with and direction from Mr. Shelley. According to Plaintiff, he and Mr. Shelley interacted at least one time per day, but the interactions were primarily meetings and were not about the actual job. According to Mr. Shelley, he and Plaintiff regularly interacted.

         Mr. Shelley was dissatisfied with Plaintiff's performance as Collections Manager in the first ninety days and documented performance issues on August 15; September 2, 18, and 22; and October 9, 2014. Mr. Shelley, at Plaintiff's request, met with Plaintiff on October 10, 2014, to review his performance and Mr. Shelley's expectations. On October 15, 2014, Mr. Shelley noted another performance issue, and he sent a summary of the issues to Sharon Ponder, ACA's Human Resources Business Partner. Mr. Shelley informed Ms. Ponder that he believed Plaintiff had been moved into a role that was more difficult than his previous position and recommended that “given his lack of performance in Spartan where he was set to be laid off, . . . we continue with the initial layoff and severance package.” (ECF No. 56-3 at 50.) Mr. Shelley also discussed his recommendation with Mr. Holgate, and Mr. Holgate elevated these concerns to the CEO, Mr. Sidden. Mr. Sidden reviewed the request and told Mr. Shelley to spend more time coaching and developing Plaintiff and to give him more time to succeed.

         In paragraphs one through three of his objections, Plaintiff asserts that his testimony contradicts the narrative both that Plaintiff was to be laid off at the time of his transfer to Collections Manager and that Chris Shelley had anything to do with his hiring. Plaintiff also asserts that the Magistrate Judge's factual recitation “unfairly gives the impression that Mr. Shelley did not take issue with Plaintiff from the beginning, which is drawing a directly contested inference in favor of Defendant.” (ECF No. 70 at 2.) Plaintiff asserts that Mr. Shelley did not ease him into the job or allow him to build his skills, and Plaintiff asserts that he testified extensively about the lack of interaction with and support from Mr. Shelley. Likewise, Plaintiff asserts that the paragraph about Mr. Shelley's characterization of Plaintiff's performance issues “skews the evidence in Defendant's favor and totally ignores all parts of the record that are favorable to Plaintiff.” (Id.)

         Although Plaintiff challenges the Magistrate Judge's depiction of the facts, nowhere does he cite to his own testimony or other evidence to contradict the Report. In addition, although Plaintiff contends that Mr. Shelley took issue with him from the beginning and that Mr. Shelley did not ease him into the job, this fact is actually apparent from the Magistrate Judge's Report. As previously mentioned, the Magistrate Judge noted that Plaintiff hoped to have more interaction with Mr. Shelley, and that Mr. Shelley took issue with Plaintiff's performance within the first ninety days of his employment as Collections Manager. Likewise, Plaintiff asserts that Mr. Shelley's attempt to have Plaintiff fired was rejected because ACA's CEO determined that Plaintiff needed more time to develop. The Magistrate Judge specifically noted that Mr. Sidden reviewed Mr. Shelley's complaints about Plaintiff (and Mr. Shelley's desire to have Plaintiff laid off) and told Mr. Shelley to spend more time coaching and developing Plaintiff and to give him more time to succeed. Finally, to the extent Plaintiff disputes the testimony of those involved in hiring Plaintiff, the Court agrees with Defendant that because Plaintiff was not involved in those discussions, he cannot rely on his own testimony to dispute that evidence. Overall, the Court finds no merit to Plaintiff's objections in paragraphs one through three.

         The Magistrate Judge's recitation of the facts continues as follows: Plaintiff testified that when he was out of sick leave, Mr. Shelley made arrangements for him to move to the Titles Department without consulting him, and that when he returned from sick leave, the Manager of the Titles Department came to him and told him that there were problems in that department and that he wanted Plaintiff to fix them. Plaintiff went to Mr. Sidden, who told him to stay in his current position and that “no one is going to make you change until I say that.” (ECF No. 59-2 at 71.) Ms. Ponder testified that Mr. Shelley and Mr. Holgate were “considering” moving Plaintiff to the Titles Department at some point and that Mr. Shelley mentioned it “in passing.” (ECF No. 60-2 at 26.)

         The record indicates that Plaintiff had established a good relationship with Mr. Sidden, who is white, and Plaintiff testified that there was nothing that would make him think that Mr. Sidden would let race be a factor in his decisions. (ECF No. 56-2 at 36-37.)

         On December 18, 2014, Plaintiff won the Goldman Award, which recognizes “an associate who exemplifies: a strong sense of community, determination towards excellence and teamwork, a foundation of respect and integrity, [and] commitment to customer service.” (ECF No. 60-7.) According to Mr. Shelley, the award recognizes “the top one or two people within the company each year for their outstanding community service, great attitude and things of that nature.” (ECF No. 59-4 at 108.)

         On January 19, 2015, Mr. Shelley issued Plaintiff's first annual performance evaluation, which included Plaintiff's work in the Spartan Division as well as his work as Collections Manager. According to Mr. Shelley, he spoke with Mr. VanGeison, Plaintiff's supervisor at Spartan, who stated that Plaintiff “was great organizationally and had good management skills, ” but that he “struggled in the group from a technical perspective.” (ECF No. 56-3 at 35-36.) Mr. Shelley noted that Plaintiff had moved from Spartan into his current position mid-year, and that it was a position in which Plaintiff “had no previous experience, resulting in a progressive learning environment managing supervisors rather than individual contributors.” (ECF No. 56-3, Ex. 1.) Mr. Shelley rated Plaintiff as “partially meets expectations” in certain performance factors in the areas of “job knowledge & development” and “productivity & quality.” (Id.) In the areas of “communication & teamwork, ” “customer service (external and internal), ” and “leadership & associate engagement, ” Mr. Shelley gave Plaintiff the highest possible rating of “greatly exceeds expectations.” (Id.) Mr. Shelley highlighted the fact that Plaintiff had an outgoing and friendly personality and an ability to motivate his employees, which Mr. Shelley stated helped offset the fact that this was one of his own weaknesses. (Id. at 39.) In an area entitled “communication & teamwork - builds and maintains effective working relationships, ” Mr. Shelley commented, “Performance is good in this area, ensure employee confidentiality is maintained to maintain trust with associates at all levels.” (Id. Ex. 1.) Mr. Shelley testified that this comment was in reference to an incident where he counseled Plaintiff about not sharing confidential information regarding his subordinate employees. (Id. at 31-35.) Specifically, Mr. Shelley testified that Plaintiff had a disagreement with a subordinate, Ashley Rhone, and that Ms. Rhone became upset with Plaintiff. Ms. Rhone's co-workers overheard her yelling and Plaintiff told Ms. Rhone's co-workers why she was upset. (ECF No 56-2.) Plaintiff explained what had happened to Mr. Shelley, who brought Plaintiff and Ms. Rhone into his office to talk about it. Ms. Rhone complained to Mr. Shelley that Plaintiff had been making negative comments about her performance and her work ethic to her co-workers. (ECF No. 56-3.) According to Mr. Shelley, after Ms. Rhone left the meeting, Mr. Shelley counseled Plaintiff on the importance of not discussing confidential employee issues with his subordinate, non-management employees. (Id. at 33-35.)

         In paragraph four of his objections, Plaintiff takes issue with the Magistrate Judge's depiction of the Ashley Rhone incident, and he asserts that he was not formally counseled or disciplined regarding the incident. (ECF No. 70 at 3.) Plaintiff asserts that the Rhone incident was “an after-the-fact attempt to justify jumping over several steps in the progressive discipline policy.” (Id.)

         Here, although the Magistrate Judge referred to Mr. Shelley's testimony where Mr. Shelley indicated he “counseled” Plaintiff on the importance of not discussing confidential employee information, the Magistrate Judge did not find that Plaintiff was formally counseled or disciplined. In addition, the Magistrate Judge also cited Plaintiff's deposition when discussing the Ashley Rhone incident and discussed both the negative and the positive portions of Plaintiff's first performance evaluation. Ultimately, the Court does not agree with Plaintiff that the Magistrate Judge somehow skewed the evidence unfairly.

         The Magistrate Judge's outline of the facts continues as follows: According to Plaintiff's testimony, during his evaluation Mr. Shelley told him, “I cannot understand you. I cannot understand the way you talk.” (ECF No. 59-2 at 57.) When Plaintiff asked why Mr. Shelley could not understand him, Mr. Shelley responded, “Because you have a third world accent.” (Id.) Plaintiff further testified that, on another occasion, they were discussing Barbados because Mr. Shelley was trying to go there, and Mr. Shelley stated, “I don't think I'll survive there around those coons.” (Id. at 59.) Plaintiff testified that another time Mr. Shelley stated that an African-American female employee's tattoos looked like “jailhouse tattoos.” (Id. at 59.) According to Plaintiff, Mr. Shelley once asked him why he was hiring so many black people. (Id. at 62.) Plaintiff responded that he was hiring the best people he could, and Plaintiff stated that Mr. Shelley had the final say in who was hired. Plaintiff testified that on another occasion a man with albinism interviewed for a position, and Mr. Shelley stated, “I'm interviewing for someone to be our bitch. . . . [B]ut I wouldn't hire that guy. I mean, look at him. He is an albino.” (Id. at 189.)

         On March 24, 2015, Ms. Rhone informed Ms. Ponder that Plaintiff told her about a situation where three of Ms. Rhone's co-workers had come to Plaintiff because they heard from someone outside the workplace that they were going to be fired. Ms. Rhone stated that Plaintiff told her that one of those co-workers, Vanessa Scott, was manipulative. Ms. Rhone felt that Plaintiff behaved inappropriately by discussing with her the conversation he had with her three co-workers. Ms. Ponder spoke with two of the three co-workers, Ms. Scott and Lea Burnett, and documented her investigation. According to Ms. Ponder, Plaintiff's conduct was inappropriate because employee concerns communicated to management were supposed to be kept confidential. (ECF No. 56-4 at 33-34.) Because Plaintiff had previously been counseled on employee confidentiality, Ms. Ponder decided to elevate this incident to a final written warning. (Id. at 38-39.)

         Ms. Ponder testified that she handled the investigation because Ms. Rhone and Ms. Scott had come to her, and after she decided what action was needed, she talked to Mr. Shelley, who agreed with the recommendation of a final warning and signed it. (Id.) Ms. Ponder further testified that she told Mr. Shelley she would like for him to present the warning to Plaintiff as his supervisor and she would sit in on the presentation. (Id.) On March 26, 2015, the final written warning was presented to Plaintiff, and Ms. Ponder testified that, during the presentation of the final warning, Plaintiff admitted telling Ms. Rhone about the meeting he had with her three co-workers, but he denied calling Ms. Scott manipulative. (Id. at 34, 52.) The final written warning states in pertinent part, under “reason for warning” that “Employee confidentiality was addressed in your performance appraisal on 1/19/2015.” (Id. Ex. 2.)

         The final written warning also references that Plaintiff “was coached in December 2014 regarding risk in giving your associates rides home which could result in the perception of favoritism as well as additional liability.” (Id.) Plaintiff testified that an associate, Fannita Harris, did not have a car and that she found out that Plaintiff drove by her house on his way home. (ECF No. 59-2 at 74-75.) Plaintiff had requested that employees work overtime, and Ms. Harris went to Plaintiff and asked if he would give her a ride home so she could work overtime. (Id.) Plaintiff did not think there was anything wrong with it, and he gave her a ride home a couple of nights. (Id.) On one occasion, Ms. Harris was crying and told Plaintiff she did not have any money for food and her child was hungry. Plaintiff paid for some food for her because he felt sorry for her. When Plaintiff mentioned the situation to a friend who worked in Human Resources, the friend told Plaintiff he should not give Ms. Harris rides. Plaintiff then told Ms. Harris that he could no longer give her rides. (Id.)

         In April of 2015, Vanessa Scott resigned. Ms. Scott completed the company's exit interview form, and Ms. Ponder conducted an exit interview with her. In the interview, Ms. Scott alleged that Plaintiff acted unprofessionally as a manager and that he flirted with female employees and said vulgar things. She said that Plaintiff told her that he and his wife slept in separate beds and that he “danced with an old friend” and “his penis got hard.” She also said that Plaintiff made an inappropriate comment to her and Lea Burnett about a woman's backside and tight pants during a fire drill. (ECF No. 56-4 at 52, Ex. 4; ECF No. 56-6 at 156-59, Ex. 7.)

         Based on Ms. Scott's allegations, Ms. Ponder interviewed Ms. Burnett who confirmed that she heard Plaintiff whisper to Ms. Scott during a fire drill, “boy look at her butt in those pants, ” and that she observed Plaintiff staring at a woman's “backside” on another occasion. (ECF No. 56-2, Ex. 6; ECF No. 56-4 at 65, 74, Ex. 5.) According to Ms. Scott, Plaintiff regularly made these types of comments. (ECF No. 56-6 at 157-58.) Plaintiff does not dispute that Ms. Scott and Ms. Burnett provided this information to Defendant; however, he does dispute whether the information is true. (ECF No. 56-2 at 99-100.)

         Mr. Shelley was not involved in Ms. Scott's exit interview, the subsequent investigation, or any decisions on how to respond. (ECF No. 56-3 at 82-83, 92; ECF No. 56-4 at 72-73.) Ms. Ponder testified that Vice President of Human Resources, Andrea Forino, told her to pull emails between Ms. Scott and Plaintiff to find out if they could confirm any of Ms. Scott's allegations, but nothing was found in the emails. (ECF No. 60-2 at 69-70). Todd Trawick, Mr. Shelley's supervisor and current COO of ACA, and Ms. Forino reviewed the allegations of Ms. Scott and Ms. Burnett and then met with Plaintiff. (ECF No. 56-4 at 71-73; ECF No. 56-3 at 92; ECF No. 56-7 ¶ 3.) Plaintiff denied making the alleged comments. (ECF No. 56-2 at 96-97.) Ms. Forino informed Plaintiff that this was his last chance and that any other confirmed misconduct would result in his termination. (Id.; ECF No. 56-7 ¶ 3.) Plaintiff did not receive a written warning or any other documented discipline related to the reports of Ms. Scott and Ms. Burnett, and according to Mr. Trawick, he and Ms. Forino “decided to give [Plaintiff] the benefit of the doubt and not issue any discipline, ” but they informed Plaintiff “that he was being given one last chance and that any other confirmed behavior issues would result in termination of his employment.” (ECF No. 56-7 ¶ 3.) Plaintiff understood that he “would have to be a tightrope walker” and that if he did anything inappropriate it could cost him his job. (ECF No. 56-2 at 97-100.) Plaintiff told one of his subordinate employees that he was on his “last strike.” (ECF No. 56-8 at 70.) In her exit interview and form, Ms. Scott also alleged that she “heard racist talk” from her former supervisor, Angela Preuter, who is a white female. Specifically, she alleged that she overheard Ms. Preuter talk about a “black girl who got drunk and knocked on a guy's door” and was shot through the door, saying the girl got what she deserved. She also claimed that Ms. Preuter stated that the “character of Satan looked like Obama, and she always had something to say about Obama's law & his appearance.” (ECF No. 56-4 at 34, Ex. 4.) Ms. Ponder testified that she talked with Mr. Shelley and that he had a conversation with Ms. Preuter regarding making comments on the floor that were inappropriate. (ECF No. 60-2 at 61-62.) Ms. Ponder did not investigate the other complaints regarding Ms. Preuter. (Id.)

         In paragraphs five and six of his objections, Plaintiff contends that the Magistrate Judge unfairly described the incident for which Plaintiff received a final warning. (ECF No. 70 at 3.) Plaintiff contends that the evidence developed during discovery was not clear about why Plaintiff received a final warning. Importantly, however, Plaintiff points to no contradictory evidence. In any event, Plaintiff contends that the Magistrate Judge accepted Ms. Ponder's version of the events and portrayed her testimony in the light most favorable to Defendant. While the Court does not agree with Plaintiff's assessment because it appears that the Magistrate Judge simply outlined Ms. Ponder's testimony, the fact remains that Plaintiff has not alleged that Ms. Ponder had any discriminatory animus. Thus, the fact that he disagrees with her version of the events is not relevant.

         Moreover, the Court does not agree with Plaintiff that the Magistrate Judge afforded too much weight to the comments Ms. Scott made about Plaintiff during her exit interview. Rather, the Magistrate Judge simply outlined the specific complaints Ms. Scott made about Plaintiff and indicated that Plaintiff denied engaging in the conduct complained of by Ms. Scott. The Court finds Plaintiff's objections in paragraphs five and six without merit.

         The Magistrate Judge's outline of the facts continues as follows: On April 24, 2015, Brenda Massaquoi, who is African-American and one of Plaintiff's subordinates, went to Ms. Ponder and complained that her supervisor, Ms. Preuter, had denied her request for time off. (ECF No. 60-2 at 87-94.) Ms. Massaquoi stated that Ms. Preuter was a racist. (Id. at 91.) During the meeting, Ms. Massaquoi also reported to Ms. Ponder that there were rumors that Plaintiff was “sleeping with” one of his female subordinates. She reported that Plaintiff talked to this subordinate all the time; that he was in this subordinate's office all the time; that he went to lunch with her and took her to pick up her car; and that there was a rumor that he paid her rent. She reported that he also may have an inappropriate relationship with another female subordinate. (ECF No. 56-2, Ex. 7.) Ms. Ponder sent Ms. Forino an email regarding Ms. Massaquoi's statements. (Id.)

         Based on the report from Ms. Ponder, Ms. Forino approved the review of Plaintiff's work email account. (ECF No. 56-9 ¶ 6.) Ms. Ponder conducted this review and did not inform Mr. Shelley prior to the review. Ms. Ponder's review of Plaintiff's emails revealed the following communications between Plaintiff and two subordinate female employees:

E-mails with Lakendra Wallace

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