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Nimmons v. South Carolina Department of Corrections

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

May 30, 2018

Laura Nimmons, Plaintiff,
v.
South Carolina Department of Corrections, Defendant.

          ORDER

          JOSEPH F. ANDERSON, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         The Plaintiff, Laura Nimmons (“Nimmons”) filed this action against her former employer, Defendant South Carolina Department of Corrections (“SCDC”), alleging race discrimination and retaliation pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.[1] (ECF No. 1).

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff removed the present matter to this Court on September 23, 2016. (ECF No. 1). On September 12, 2017, the Defendant moved for summary judgment. (ECF No. 22). The Plaintiff responded to the Defendant's Motion on October 18, 2017 (ECF No. 33), and the Defendant replied to the Response on October 25, 2017 (ECF No. 35).

         Thereafter, in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2) (D.S.C.), the case was referred to a Magistrate Judge for Review. The Magistrate issued a Report and Recommendation (“Report”) on April 23, 2018. (ECF No. 41). On May 4, 2018, the Plaintiff filed objections to the Report. (ECF No. 46). The Defendant replied to Plaintiff's Objections on May 14, 2018. (ECF No. 47).

         Therefore, this matter is ripe for review.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         The Magistrate Judge assigned to this action[2] prepared a thorough Report and Recommendation and opines that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 22) should be granted. (ECF No. 41). The Report sets forth, in detail, the relevant facts and standards of law on this matter, and this Court incorporates those facts and standards without a recitation.

         A district court is only required to conduct a de novo review of the specific portions of the Magistrate Judge's Report to which an objection is made. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b); Carniewski v. W.Va. Bd. of Prob. & Parole, 974 F.2d 1330 (4th Cir. 1992). In the absence of specific objections to portions of the Magistrate's Report, this Court is not required to give an explanation for adopting the recommendation. See Camby v. Davis, 718 F.2d 198, 199 (4th Cir. 1983). Thus, the Court must only review those portions of the Report to which Plaintiff has made a specific written objection. Diamond v. Colonial Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 316 (4th Cir. 2005).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff has made several objections to the Report, most of which are repetitions of Plaintiff's arguments in her Response to the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 33). However, Plaintiff has made several specific objections to the Report. Each objection is addressed below.

         A. Objection 1 - Retaliation

         Plaintiff generally objects to the Magistrate's finding that her retaliation claim should be dismissed. (ECF No. 6 p. 2');">46 p. 2). Specifically, Plaintiff objects to the Magistrate's finding that the Defendant's proffered reason for firing Plaintiff was not pretext for discrimination. The Defendant's argues that it fired Plaintiff because Plaintiff surreptitiously copied personnel files and because Plaintiff initially denied doing so. However, Plaintiff argues that she copied her own personnel file, which is not a firing offense, and thus the Defendant's reason is pretext for its retaliation against Plaintiff for filing a hostile work environment claim against Defendant three weeks before Defendant terminated her employment.

         Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to retaliate against an activity that is protected under the statute, including filing a complaint with the equal employment opportunity commission. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a). The elements of a prima facie retaliation claim are as follows: (1) the employee engaged in an activity protected under the statute; (2) the employer acted adversely against the employee; and (3) there was a causal connection between the employee's protected activity and the employer's adverse action. See Ziskie v. Mineta, 547 F.3d 220, 229 (4th Cir. 2008).

         Retaliation claims are generally analyzed under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework when the Plaintiff introduces circumstantial evidence to support her claim. See Smith v. First Union Nat'l Bank, 202 F.3d 234, 248 (4th Cir. 2000); McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973). Under this framework, a plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination, and then the burden shifts to the defendant to produce evidence that it had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions against the employee-plaintiff. See Merritt v. Old Dominion Freight, 601 F.3d 289, 294 (4th Cir. 2010). The defendant's burden is a “burden of production, not persuasion.” Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000).

         If the defendant meets this burden, the plaintiff must then prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the defendant's proffered reason for its action or actions was “pretext for discrimination.” Merritt, 601 F.3d at 294 (quoting Tex. Dep't of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253 (1981)). The Supreme Court has held that “a plaintiff's prima facie case, combined with sufficient evidence to find that the employer's asserted justification is false, may permit the trier of fact to conclude that the employer unlawfully discriminated.” Reeves, 530 U.S. at 135. The Court further stated,

[T]here will be instances where, although the plaintiff has established a prima facie case and set forth sufficient evidence to reject the defendant's explanation, no rational factfinder could conclude that the action was discriminatory. For instance, an employer would be entitled to judgment as a matter of law if the record conclusively revealed some other, nondiscriminatory reason for the employer's decision, or if the plaintiff created only a weak issue of fact as to whether the employer's reason was untrue and there was abundant and uncontroverted independent evidence that no discrimination had occurred.

Id. at 148. In these such circumstances, summary judgment would be appropriate. See id.

         “Protected activities fall into two distinct categories: participation or opposition.” Laughlin v. Metro. Wash. Airports Auth., 149 F.3d 253 258-59 (4th Cir. 1998) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a)). “An employer may not retaliate against an employee for participating in an ongoing investigation or proceeding under Title VII, nor may the employer take adverse employment action against an employee for opposing discriminatory practices in the workplace.” See Id. at 259. Some of these protected activities include the following: “(1) making a charge; (2) testifying; (3) assisting; or (4) participating in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under Title VII.” Id.

         The Plaintiff engaged in a protected activity when she filed a hostile work environment complaint (“HWE Complaint”), wherein she described a racially charged conversation between Plaintiff and her coworkers. In that report, Plaintiff reported an incident wherein her fellow employees accused Plaintiff of having family members in the Ku Klux Klan (“KKK”). See (ECF No. 33-16 p. 2). Plaintiff reported this incident on July 17, 2015. Id. The Fourth Circuit has recognized that the KKK is a group dedicated to racial hate. See Smith v. United States, 262 F.2d 50, 50 (4th Cir. 1958). Thus, Plaintiff has at least presented a jury question regarding whether she engaged in a protected activity when she reported that her fellow employees had accused her of having ties to the KKK.

         Furthermore, the Plaintiff experienced an adverse employment action when she was fired. Thus, Plaintiff has established the second element of the prima facie test for retaliation.

         Next, the Plaintiff must establish whether there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment action. Such a causal connection may be established through a temporal proximity between an employee's protected activity and an employer's adverse employment action. See Waag v. Sotera Defense Solns., Inc., 857 F.3d 179, 192 (4th Cir. 2017) (“[F]or purposes of establishing a prima facie case [of retaliation], close temporal proximity between the activity protected by the statute and an adverse employment action may suffice to demonstrate causation.”); Williams v. Cerberonics, Inc., 871 F.2d 452, 457 (4th Cir. 1989) (finding a causal connection between protected activity and discharge where discharge occurred about three months after plaintiff filed a discrimination complaint). Here, the Defendant fired Plaintiff about three weeks after she filed her hostile work environment complaint.

         The Defendant argues, and the Magistrate agrees, that the Plaintiff likely broke the causal chain by copying her personnel documents and initially denying that she did so. Although she initially denied copying the documents (ECF No. 22-4 p. 2), she admitted to doing so on the same day at around 12:00 p.m. (ECF No. 22-5 p. 2).

         Plaintiff complained about the KKK conversation on July 17; she was suspended on August 5; and she was terminated on August 11. As the Magistrate noted, this temporal proximity would typically ...


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