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Parker v. National Honorary Beta Club

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

April 25, 2018

Denise Parker, Respondent,
v.
The National Honorary Beta Club, Appellant. Appellate Case No. 2016-000232

          Heard March 6, 2018

          Appeal from Spartanburg County R. Keith Kelly, Circuit Court Judge

          Thomas A. Bright and David Lee Harris, Jr. of Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart, PC, of Greenville, for Appellant.

          Brian Patrick Murphy, of Stephenson & Murphy, LLC, of Greenville, for Respondent.

          HILL, J.

         After she was fired by the National Honorary Beta Club (Beta Club), a jury awarded Denise Parker actual damages for breach of contract and punitive damages for breach of contract accompanied by a fraudulent act. Beta Club now appeals the trial court's denial of its directed verdict and JNOV motions, asserting there was not sufficient evidence of breach of contract accompanied by a fraudulent act to submit punitive damages to the jury. We affirm.

         I.

         Denise Parker had been employed at will by Beta Club for thirty-eight years, when Bob Bright arrived as CEO in 2013. Bright reorganized the company, reassigning various employees, including Parker. Parker's co-workers elected her to a staff-liaison committee reporting to Beta Club's Internal Affairs Committee (IAC), which included several members of the company's board of directors. On October 21, 2013, Bright summoned Parker to a meeting to give her a disciplinary note listing concerns about her professionalism. When Parker pressed Bright for a specific example of her shortcomings, Bright responded he could "bring the whole office staff down here" to give instances where Parker had not been helpful to them. He mentioned that just that morning, Parker did not perform a task requested by Barbara Anderson. Parker left the meeting shaken, and soon saw Anderson, who asked what was wrong. When Parker apologized to Anderson for not doing what Anderson had asked, Anderson replied she did not know what Parker was talking about. Parker explained Bright had told her she had not done what Anderson asked her to do; Anderson assured her she had.

         On October 25, 2013, during the IAC's regular meeting with the staff-liaison committee, a board member asked Parker about her recent meeting with Bright. After a member of the IAC told Parker she could not be fired for answering its questions, she revealed details of her meeting, including Bright's allegation about the Barbara Anderson incident. Bright was not present at the IAC meeting, and he was out of town the next week. Bright met with Parker the following Monday, November 4, and handed her another disciplinary note, stating she was negative and failed to respond to emails. When Bright asserted he understood Parker had been negative with the IAC, she explained she had only answered the IAC's questions and the IAC had told her she had to answer and could not be fired for doing so. As to the emails, Parker declared the only ones she did not answer were either spam or UPS notifications requiring no action. At the end of the meeting, Bright fired Parker. Parker testified Jay Moore, Beta Club's technology director, later informed her he had repeatedly told Bright the only emails she had not responded to were spam.

         Parker sued Beta Club for breach of contract and breach of contract accompanied by a fraudulent act. A jury awarded her $518, 006.00 in actual damages and $350, 000.00 in punitive damages.

         II.

         We recognize Beta Club contested much of Parker's evidence. In reviewing the denial of a directed verdict/JNOV motion, however, we cannot weigh the evidence or pass on credibility; our sole task is deciding whether, reviewing the record in the light most favorable to Parker, any evidence reasonably supports the jury's verdict. See Curcio v. Caterpillar, Inc., 355 S.C. 316, 320, 585 S.E.2d 272, 274 (2003).

         The jury's verdict carried with it an implicit finding that Beta Club's promise to Parker that she could not be fired for answering the IAC's questions altered her at-will employment, creating a contract that was breached when Bright fired her for that very reason. Beta Club has not appealed the verdict that it breached Parker's contract. Instead, it contends the evidence was insufficient to enable the jury to find the breach of contract was accompanied by a fraudulent act, on which the punitive damages award depends.

         Synthesizing cases going back to 1904, Judge Bell summarized what proof entitles a party to recover punitive damages for breach of ...


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