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Ellis v. Harrelson Nissan of South Carolina LLC

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Rock Hill Division

September 29, 2017

TRYNIE ELLIS, Plaintiff,
v.
HARRELSON NISSAN OF SOUTH CAROLINA, LLC; LOUIS F. HARRELSON; and ROBERT HARRELSON, Defendants.

          ORDER AND OPINION

          Hon. Margaret B. Seymour, Senior United States District Judge

         Plaintiff 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.

         I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY[1]

         Plaintiff, 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.[2] 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.

         The Sutter Incident[3] 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. Id.

         The 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.

         When 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.

         Plaintiff 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 recitation.

         According 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 at 16-17.

         It is 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.

         According 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.

         Following 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. at 17.

         On July 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.

         On May 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. 80.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Summary Judgment

         Pursuant 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 (1986).

         B. Burden of Proof in Title VII Claims

         Title 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).

         For 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)).

         C. Magistrate Judge Review

         The 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).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Plaintiff's Title VII Claims

         Plaintiff's 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 ...


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