United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Rock Hill Division
ORDER AND OPINION
Margaret B. Seymour, Senior United States District Judge
Trynie Ellis (“Plaintiff”) brings this action
against her former employer, Harrelson Nissan of South
Carolina, LLC (“Harrelson Nissan”) and its
managing agents, Louis F. Harrelson and Robert Harrelson
(collectively “Defendants”), asserting state law
claims of tortious interference with contract and slander.
ECF No. 47. Plaintiff also brings claims solely against
Harrelson Nissan for harassment, retaliation, and wrongful
termination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act
of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. §§
2000(e) et seq. ECF No. 47. In accordance
with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Civil Rule 73.02
(B)(2), D.S.C., this matter was referred to United States
Magistrate Judge Kaymani D. West. On October 21, 2016,
Defendants submitted a Motion for Summary Judgment as to all
of Plaintiff's claims. ECF No. 70.
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
who is a female, worked for Defendants for over ten years.
ECF. No. 47 at 7. The ten-year span was comprised of two
separate periods. This litigation is based on her most recent
span of employment by Harrelson Nissan, during which she
worked as the Controller from March of 2010 until October 23,
2013. Id. at 8. Plaintiff alleges that
during this time, she was subject to gender-based harassment
as well as two instances of assault (the “Sutter
Incident” and the “Dancey Incident”)
committed by fellow co-corkers. Id. at 20-78. The
assaults, Plaintiff attests, were motivated at least in part
by Plaintiff's gender. Id. at 65.
Sutter Incident involved a co-worker who threatened
Plaintiff after she informed him that he would have to pay
for damage he caused to a Harrelson Nissan-owned golf cart.
ECF No. 47 at 5. After Plaintiff advised Sutter that the cost
of repair would be deducted from his paycheck, Sutter left
Harrelson Nissan only to return a short time later with
several family members. Id. Sutter “loudly
told those working at the dealership that he and his family
were there to ‘beat up' [Plaintiff].”
Id. Sutter first made these and other
remarks-referring to Plaintiff as “b***h” and
stating that “he was going to grab her by her hair and
drag her in the parking lot”-in Plaintiff's office,
but then “continued to rant and threaten [Plaintiff] as
he went through the showroom, screaming at
[Plaintiff].” Id. at 5-6. According to
Plaintiff, Robert Harrelson was present in Plaintiff's
office during Sutter's assault, but did not intervene.
Id. at 5. Sutter continued to yell and threaten
Plaintiff until the police arrived. Id. at 6.
Plaintiff avers that Sutter quit his job shortly after the
incident, but was rehired “almost immediately” by
Louis F. Harrelson over Plaintiff's objections.
Dancey Incident occurred on October 11, 2013. Id. at
7. Dancey entered Plaintiff's office threatening
Plaintiff and referring to Plaintiff as “b***h.”
Id. at 8. According to Plaintiff, Dancey “came
at” Plaintiff, “his face full of rage, stuck his
finger in her face, and leaned over within inches of her
face[, ]” allowing spit to get onto her cheek.
Id. Co-worker Michelle Rodriquez witnessed the
incident and called 911 to report it. Id.
police arrived on the scene, Louis F. Harrelson and Dancey
met them, and Louis F. Harrelson told the police to
“get off [his] property.” Id. at 9. In
Plaintiff's presence, Louis F. Harrelson told the police
that “nobody's filing a complaint, ” and that
they needed to leave. Id. In his deposition, Louis
F. Harrelson indicated that he told police that “it
doesn't look very good . . . for a police car [to be] in
front of the building with a blue light blinking, ” and
asked if the police would “do it as quickly as you can
so you can leave.” ECF No. 72-10, at 16. Louis F.
Harrelson testified that, to him, the incident between Dancey
and Plaintiff was “trivial-it was very trivial.”
Id. at 20. He also said that once the police left,
“as far as I was concerned it was over.”
Id. at 21. The Police Incident Report of October 11,
2013, shows that Dancey was charged with “disorderly
conduct offering violence.” ECF No. 72-13 at 5. Dancey
was not terminated, but instead was sent to work at a used
car lot that was near Harrelson Nissan. Dancey returned to
Harrelson Nissan within a few days. ECF No. 47 at 9.
further alleges several additional instances of sexual
harassment experienced at the dealership-viewing of
pornography in the workplace by co-workers, weekly references
made by Harrelson Nissan's General Manager, Lloyd
Edwards, asking if Plaintiff had given “Mr. H” a
“blow job, ” and Plaintiff being told by Robert
Harrelson and Lloyd Edwards that Plaintiff “wanted
them”-to name a few. ECF No. 47 at 11-15. The
Magistrate Judge's Report discusses in greater detail the
various other examples of sexual harassment that Plaintiff
alleges occurred during her employment. See ECF No.
78 at 5-10. The court incorporates those facts without
to Plaintiff, she launched numerous complaints about her
treatment, but Defendants largely ignored these complaints
and did not punish or terminate the offending co-workers.
Id. at 79-80. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges she
advised Robert Harrelson that she wanted Dancey to be fired
after the incident, and she continued to raise her concerns
for several days after the incident. See ECF No. 47
undisputed that Plaintiff's last day of work at Harrelson
Nissan was October 23, 2013. Id. at 90. However,
Plaintiff takes the position that she was terminated that
day, while Defendants claim she resigned from her position.
Compare ECF No. 72 at 18-21, with ECF No.
70-1 at 7-8. In the days after the Dancey Incident Plaintiff
alleges that Robert Harrelson made comments such as,
“I've had enough . . . if you want to be fired for
insubordination, then I will, ” “quit if you want
to, ” and “If I need to fire you, I will.”
ECF No. 47 at 15. On October 18, 2013, Plaintiff saw Dancey
at Harrelson Nissan, and believing there was a “no
contact” order in place against Dancy, she called the
police. Id. Robert Harrelson told Plaintiff to stop
calling the police, and later sent Plaintiff a text message
informing her that he was going to demote her. Id.
When Plaintiff asked why, Robert Harrelson replied,
“Need a change . . . Attitude . . . .”
Id. at 16. A demotion never occurred, however. ECF
No. 42 at 7.
to Plaintiff, when she walked into work on October 23, she
was told by one of her co-workers that she was going to get
fired. ECF No. 72-1 at 14. Later that day while Plaintiff was
in Louis F. Harrelson's office discussing a paperwork
issue, Louis F. Harrelson sated, “I am sick of you,
I'm done with you, get out; I don't want to hear what
you have to say, get out, I'm sick of you.”
Id. Robert Harrelson was not at Harrelson Nissan
that day, so Plaintiff called him “immediately to
inform him of the termination.” Id. Plaintiff
told Robert Harrelson that his “dad had just fired
[her] and [Robert Harrelson's] only response was
‘OK.' Bobby never said [Plaintiff] was not fired
that day. When [Plaintiff] added that [she] was packing up
[her] things and asked if [Robert Harrelson] wanted someone
to walk [her] out, he hung up on [Plaintiff] or the phone
line went dead.” Id. at 12-13. According to
Defendants, on or around October 24, 2013, Robert Harrelson
left Plaintiff a voicemail and several subsequent text
messages advising Plaintiff that Louis F. Harrelson could not
fire her and that he was assuming that she was quitting
because she had not answered or returned his calls. ECF No.
70-1 at 8.
her termination, Plaintiff sought employment with other
dealerships. Id. at 98. In June 2015, Plaintiff was
offered and accepted a position at a dealership. ECF No. 72-1
at 16. Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff was informed that the
dealership could “no longer keep [her] due to [her]
employment with the Harrelsons.” Id. The
dealership eventually informed Plaintiff that it would not
hire her based on an “allegation that [she] had
embezzled money from a former employer.” Id.
10, 2015, Plaintiff filed suit in the Court of Common Pleas
in York County, South Carolina. Defendants removed the case
to this court on August 20, 2015. ECF No. 1. Plaintiff's
initial Complaint included claims against Defendants for
assault, negligent supervision and retention, and wrongful
termination in violation of public policy; and claims against
Harrelson Nissan for harassment, discrimination, and
retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act
of 1964. ECF No. 1-1. On August 27, 2015, Defendants moved to
dismiss pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure
12(b)(6). ECF No. 4. Plaintiff opposed the motion, ECF No. 8,
and moved to file an amended complaint adding claims of
tortious interference with contract and slander. ECF No. 11.
Defendants opposed the request for amendment. ECF No. 24. On
March 21, 2016, the court, upon the recommendation of the
Magistrate Judge, issued an Order (“March 2016
Order”) that dismissed Plaintiff's claims of
assault, negligent supervision and retention, and wrongful
termination in violation of public policy. ECF No. 42.
However, the March 2016 Order granted Plaintiff's motion
to amend her complaint, which included her Title VII claims
as well as her state-law claims of tortious interference with
contract and slander. Id. Plaintiff filed the
Amended Complaint on March 29, 2016. ECF No. 47.
Subsequently, on October 21, 2016, Defendants filed a Motion
for Summary Judgment as to all of Plaintiff's remaining
claims. ECF No. 70. Plaintiff filed a response in opposition
on November 7, 2016, to which Defendants filed a reply on
November 17, 2016.
22, 2017, the Magistrate Judge prepared a thorough Report and
Recommendation (“Report”) and recommended that
Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment should be granted
in part and denied in part. ECF No. 78. Defendants filed
partial objections to the Report on June 5, 2017, ECF No. 79,
to which Plaintiff filed a reply on June 19, 2017. ECF No.
to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 56(a), the court
shall grant summary judgment if the moving party shows that
there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and is
entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The evidence
presents a genuine issue of material fact if a
“reasonable jury could return a verdict for the
non-moving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby,
Inc., 477 U.S. 24, 251-52 (1986). Any inference drawn
from the facts should be viewed in the light most favorable
to the non-moving party. United States v. Diebold,
Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962). The party seeking
summary judgment bears the initial burden of demonstrating to
the district court that there is no genuine issue of material
fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S 317-23
(1986). Once the moving party makes this showing, the
opposing party must set forth specific facts showing there is
a genuine issue of fact. A “mere scintilla” of
evidence is insufficient to overcome the summary judgment
motion. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 252
Burden of Proof in Title VII Claims
VII makes it unlawful for an employer “to fail or
refuse to hire or to discharge any individual or otherwise
discriminate against any individual with respect to his
compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment,
because of such individual's . . . sex . . . .” 42
U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). A plaintiff may demonstrate a
violation of Title VII through direct or circumstantial
evidence. When direct evidence is lacking, a plaintiff may
produce circumstantial evidence and proceed under the
McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework.
McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802
(1973). Pursuant to this framework, once the plaintiff
establishes a prima facie case of a violation of Title VII,
the burden shifts to the defendant to produce evidence of a
legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its employment
action. Merritt v. Old Dominion Freight, 601 F.3d
289, 294 (4th Cir. 2010). If the defendant meets this burden,
the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to demonstrate by a
preponderance of the evidence that the proffered reason was
“not its true reason[ ], but [was] a pretext.”
Tex. Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S.
248, 253 (1981).
status-based discrimination claims, such as harassment or
discrimination claims based on gender or race, the employee
must “show that the motive to discriminate was one of
the employer's motives, even if the employer also had
other, lawful motives that were causative in the
employer's decision.” Univ. of Texas Sw. Med.
Ctr. v. Nassar, 133 S.Ct. 2517, 2523 (2013). While
intermediate evidentiary burdens shift back and forth, the
ultimate burden of persuasion that the defendant engaged in
intentional discrimination remains at all times with the
plaintiff. See Reeves, 530 U.S. at 146-47
(“The ultimate question is whether the employer
intentionally discriminated, and proof that ‘the
employer's proffered reason is unpersuasive, or even
obviously contrived, does not necessarily establish that the
plaintiff's proffered reason . . . is
correct.'”) (quoting St. Mary's Honor
Center v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 506 (1993)).
Magistrate Judge Review
Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this court.
The recommendation has no presumptive weight and the
responsibility for making a final determination remains with
this court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270
(1976). The court reviews de novo only those
portions of a Magistrate Judge's report and
recommendation to which specific objections are filed, and
reviews those portions which are not objected to-including
those portions to which only “general and
conclusory” objections have been made-for clear error.
Diamond v. Colonia Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 416
F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005); Camby v. Davis, 718
F.2d 198, 200 (4th Cir. 1983); Opriano v. Johnson,
687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982). 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).
Plaintiff's Title VII Claims
Title VII causes of action include claims for gender
discrimination on the basis of harassment, retaliation, and
wrongful termination against Harrelson Nissan. See
ECF No. 47 at 19. Plaintiff further seeks punitive damages
under Title VII. Id. Harrelson Nissan seeks summary
judgment as to each of these claims. In her motion in
opposition to Defendants' summary judgment request,
Plaintiff asserts that she has made a prima facie case for
each of her Title VII causes of action. Plaintiff, however,
has only presented circumstantial evidence of discrimination.
Under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting
framework the burden then shifts to Harrelson Nissan to
produce evidence of a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason
for its employment acts. However, Harrelson Nissan has failed
to address the remaining analysis. Therefore, agreeing that
Plaintiff has made a prima facie showing as to each cause of
action, the Magistrate Judge recommends that summary judgment
be denied as to Plaintiff's Title VII claims for
harassment, retaliation, and wrongful termination. The
Magistrate Judge further ...