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Thompson v. Richland County School District One

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

June 5, 2018

Machelle Thompson, Plaintiff,
v.
Richland County School District One, [1] Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          DONALD C. COGGINS, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Partial Judgment on the Pleadings. ECF No. 21. Plaintiff filed a Response in Opposition, and Defendant filed a Reply. ECF Nos. 24, 27. Accordingly, the Motion is ripe for review.

         Plaintiff brings this action alleging she was subjected to retaliation in violation of the Fair Labor and Standards Act, that Defendants violated her due process rights, and various state law claims. The following facts are taken from Plaintiff's Amended Complaint. Plaintiff was employed as the Director of Classified Employment Services for Defendant Richland County School District One (“the District”) on May 18, 2015. ECF No. 8 at 2. In May 2016, the United States Department of Labor issued new regulations raising the salaries for exempt employees. Id. at 2-3. Plaintiff was assigned the task of identifying employees affected by the new regulation and employees who may have been misclassified under the duties test for exemption. Id. at 4. Identified employees were sent a letter by Sanita Savage Cousar, Chief of Human Resources for the District, alerting them to the change in the regulation and informing them that the changes to their salary or exemption status would go into effect on December 1, 2016. Id. at 5.

         On November 22, 2016, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas enjoined enforcement of the new regulation nationwide. Id. Plaintiff emailed Cousar that she believed delaying implementation of the regulation could impact the District legally and financially and would result in an investigation by the Labor Department. Susan Williams, General Counsel for the District, admonished Plaintiff that her email was inappropriate; on December 16, 2016, Cousar issued a written reprimand of Plaintiff. Id. at 6. Plaintiff had been written up two previous times in April and August 2016.

         Plaintiff disputed the reprimand and the two write ups and filed a grievance. Id. Craig Witherspoon, the Superintendent of the District, placed Plaintiff on administrative leave on January 8, 2017; on February 10, 2017, the District terminated Plaintiff's employment. Id. at 7. Plaintiff was granted a hearing before Witherspoon on February 27, 2017. Id. Witherspoon upheld Plaintiff's termination on March 6, 2017. Id.

         In its Motion, Defendant argues that it is entitled to partial judgment on the pleadings with respect to Plaintiff's claim that Defendant violated her due process rights and violated South Carolina law on defamation, wrongful discharge, civil conspiracy, and the whistleblower statute.

         APPLICABLE LAW

         12(b)(6)

         Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permits the dismissal of an action if the complaint fails “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Such a motion tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint and “does not resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of the claim, or the applicability of defenses . . . . Our inquiry then is limited to whether the allegations constitute ‘a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.'” Republican Party of N.C. v. Martin, 980 F.2d 943, 952 (4th Cir. 1992) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). In a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court is obligated to “assume the truth of all facts alleged in the complaint and the existence of any fact that can be proved, consistent with the complaint's allegations.” E. Shore Mkts., Inc. v. J.D. Assocs. Ltd. P'ship, 213 F.3d 175, 180 (4th Cir. 2000). However, while the Court must accept the facts in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party, it “need not accept as true unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments.” Id.

         To survive a motion to dismiss, the complaint must state “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570(2007). Although the requirement of plausibility does not impose a probability requirement at this stage, the complaint must show more than a “sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). A complaint has “facial plausibility” where the pleading “allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id.

         12(c)

         Rule 12(c) provides that “[a]fter the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial-a party may move for judgment on the pleadings.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). “[A] motion for judgment on the pleadings is decided under the same standard as a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6).” Deutsche Bank Nat'l Trust Co. v. IRS, 361 F. App'x. 527, 529 (4th Cir. 2010) (citing Independence News, Inc. v. City of Charlotte, 568 F.3d 148, 154 (4th Cir. 2009)); see also Massey v. Ojaniit, 759 F.3d 343, 353 (4th Cir. 2014) (citing Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 244 (4th Cir. 1999)). The key difference between a Rule 12(b)(6) motion and a Rule 12(c) motion is that on a 12(c) motion, the court “consider[s] the answer as well as the complaint” and “documents incorporated by reference in the pleadings.” Fitchett v. Cty. of Horry, S.C., C/A No. 4:10-cv-1648-TLW-TER, 2011 WL 4435756, at *3 (D.S.C. Aug. 10, 2011) (citations omitted).

         A motion for judgment on the pleadings is intended to test the legal sufficiency of the complaint and will operate to dispose of claims “where the material facts are not in dispute and a judgment on the merits can be rendered by looking to the substance of the pleadings and any judicially noted facts.” Cont'l Cleaning Serv. v. UPS, C/A No. 1:98-cv-1056, 1999 WL 1939249, at *1 (M.D. N.C. Apr. 13, 1999) (citing Herbert Abstract v. Touchstone Props., Inc., 914 F.2d 74, 76 (5th Cir. 1990)). “An issue of fact is deemed to be material if the outcome of the case might be altered by the resolution of the issue one way rather than another.” Walker v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., C/A No. 4:16-cv-01388-RBH, 2017 WL 1020884, at *1 (D.S.C. Mar. 16, 2017) (quoting 5C Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure § 1368 (3d ed. 2011)). “Thus, the plaintiff may not secure a judgment on the pleadings when the answer raises issues of fact that, if proved, would defeat recovery.” Id. “Accordingly, ‘[t]he court must accept all well pleaded factual allegations in the non-moving party's pleadings as true and reject all contravening assertions in the moving party's pleadings as false.'” Catlin Specialty Ins. Grp. v. Lowcountry Oysters of Murrells Inlet, LLC, C/A No. No. 2:17-cv-1528-RMG, 2018 WL 369154, at *1 (D.S.C. Jan. 11, 2018) (quoting Lewis v. Excel Mech., LLC, C/A No. 2:13-CV-281-PMD, 2013 WL 4585873, at *1 (D.S.C. Aug. 28, 2013)). “[W]hen the plaintiff moves for judgment on the pleadings, the motion should be granted if, ‘on the undenied facts alleged in the complaint and assuming as true all the material allegations of fact in the answer, the plaintiff is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'” Walker, 2017 WL 1020884, at *1 (quoting Lowden v. Cty. of Clare, 709 F.Supp.2d 540, 546 (E.D. Mich. 2010)).

         DISCUSSION

         Whistleblower

         Defendant argues that Plaintiff's Second Cause of Action, alleging Defendant violated South Carolina's whistleblower statute, must be dismissed because Plaintiff did not comply with the statutory prerequisites. ECF No. 21-1 at 10. Specifically, Plaintiff did not allege that her grievance resulted in a decision that she would not have been disciplined but for her reporting of the alleged wrongdoing. Plaintiff contends that strict application of the statute renders an absurd result because it is improbable that the decision-makers in her case, who were also the policy-makers, would invite liability by ...


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