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Walker v. Progressive Casualty Insurance Company

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

March 8, 2019

Kenneth Dale Walker, Plaintiff,
v.
Progressive Casualty Insurance Company, Defendant.

          ORDER

         This matter is before the court for review of the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation (“Report”) filed on November 6, 2018. (ECF No. 67.) The Report addresses Defendant Progressive Casualty Insurance Company's (“Defendant”) Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 54) and recommends granting Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment as to Plaintiff Kenneth Dale Walker's (“Plaintiff”) claim under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) and remanding Plaintiff's remaining state law claims to the Lexington County Court of Common Pleas. (Id. at 2, 16.) The court heard arguments on March 4, 2019. (ECF No. 82.) For the reasons set forth herein, the court ACCEPTS and MODIFIES the Magistrate Judge's Report (ECF No. 67), incorporating it herein, GRANTS IN PART Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 54) as it relates to Plaintiff's ADEA claim, and REMANDS Plaintiff's remaining state law claims (ECF Nos. 1, 27, 43), including his Partial Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 48), to the Lexington County Court of Common Pleas.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The Report provides a thorough examination of the facts, which this court incorporates herein without a full recitation. (ECF No. 67 at 3-6.) As brief background, Plaintiff was hired by Defendant as a claims representative in 1989 and was eventually promoted to a claims manager position in 2014. (ECF No. 54-2 at 7; ECF No. 67 at 3.) During his employment as a claims manager, Plaintiff oversaw Cynthia Walker (“Walker”), a claims processer and receptionist, to whom he was not related. (ECF No. 54-2 at 9-10.) In addition to being Walker's supervisor, Plaintiff maintained a personal friendship with Walker, which was not romantic or sexual. (ECF No. 54-9 at 2; ECF No. 54-11 at 2-3; ECF No. 54-13 at 6-7; ECF No. 67 at 3.) On or about February 9, 2017, Plaintiff was approached by Christina Stewart (“Stewart”), one of his supervisees, about her observation of a verbal altercation between Walker and another employee named Summer Hills-Painter (“Hills-Painter”). (ECF No. 54-2 at 7-9, 11.) Plaintiff spoke with Walker about the incident and asked her to “apologize to those involved.” (Id. at 15.) Stewart disagreed with Plaintiff's handling of the situation and believed that Walker should have been written up. (ECF No. 54-12 at 9.)

         Following the incident, Dana Riley (“Riley”), Defendant's human resources consultant, contacted Stewart to discuss an unrelated matter regarding Hills-Painter. (ECF No. 54-6 at 8-11; ECF No. 54-12 at 6.) During that conversation, Stewart told Riley about the altercation between Walker and Hills-Painter. (ECF No. 54-6 at 11-12; ECF No. 54-12 at 6.) Riley testifies that, during their initial conversation, Stewart told her about Plaintiff having a “relationship outside of work” with Walker, but Stewart testifies that she told Riley about Plaintiff and Walker's friendship when Riley physically visited their job site. (ECF No. 54-6 at 13; ECF No. 54-12 at 13-14.) Regardless of the inconsistency between Riley and Stewart about when the conversation took place, Stewart previously stated that she “advised” Riley, in a meeting, that Plaintiff and Walker had a “relationship outside of work that started when his kids were young and continues to this day.” (ECF No. 54-11 at 11-12.) Eventually, Riley opened an investigation into Plaintiff's management of Stewart. (ECF No. 54-4 at 2; ECF No. 54-6 at 6, 15.) Riley's investigation revealed a personal friendship between Plaintiff and Walker, and Walker's time and attendance records revealed attendance issues. (ECF No. 54-4 at 4; ECF No. 54-13 at 8.)

         On March 21, 2017, Riley, along with Kevin Walston (“Walston”), visited Plaintiff's office in order to conduct interviews of Plaintiff, Walker, and Stewart. (ECF No. 54-4 at 3; ECF No. 54-11 at 2-12.) After the interviews, Riley asked each interviewee to confirm or make additions to the information gathered from the interviews. (ECF No. 54-11.) Based upon the investigation, there was a recommendation of termination for Plaintiff. (ECF No. 54-8 at 2.) Defendant terminated Plaintiff on March 29, 2017, stating that he violated its Relationships at Work Policy (“the RWP”)[1] by failing to report his personal friendship with Walker. (ECF No. 54-9.) Riley's investigation indicated that Plaintiff allowed his dog to stay with Walker and Walker's disabled sister, Walker kept an interest in Plaintiff's children, and Plaintiff assisted Walker with paying for emergency expenditures. (ECF No. 67 at 6.) (See also ECF No. 54-4 at 14.)

         After his termination in March 2017, Plaintiff filed his Complaint against Defendant in the Lexington County Court of Common Pleas on June 5, 2017. (ECF No. 1-1 at 8-16.) Originally, Plaintiff brought claims under the ADEA, civil conspiracy, defamation, and tortious interference with contract. (Id.) Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a), Defendant removed the action to the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina on July 21, 2017, specifically invoking federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and supplemental jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1367. (ECF No. 1 at 1-4.) Upon filing a Second Amended Complaint on March 9, 2018, Plaintiff only presented claims under the ADEA, defamation, breach of contract, and public policy discharge. (ECF No. 43.) A few months later, on June 29, 2018, Plaintiff filed his Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, but only concerning liability for his breach of contract claim. (ECF No. 48.) On July 16, 2018, Defendant filed its Motion for Summary Judgment, seeking the entry of summary judgment on all of Plaintiff's claims. (ECF No. 54-1.)

         The Magistrate Judge filed her Report on November 6, 2018. (ECF No. 67.) The Magistrate Judge recommends granting Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiff's ADEA claim and remanding Plaintiff's remaining state law claims, including his Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, to the Lexington County Court of Common Pleas. (Id. at 2, 16.) First, as it relates to Plaintiff's ADEA claim, the Magistrate Judge determined that Plaintiff successfully established a prima facie case of age discrimination under the United States Supreme Court's McDonnell Douglas framework. (Id. at 9 n.1 (citing Hill v. Lockheed Martin Logistics Mgmt., Inc., 354 F.3d 277, 285 (4th Cir. 2004)).) Putting it quite succinctly, the Magistrate Judge opined that Plaintiff “presented no evidence that Defendant manufactured its explanation for his termination and that his age was the ‘but-for' cause of his termination.” (Id. at 15 (emphasis added).) In the Magistrate Judge's view, because Plaintiff could not show pretext or but-for cause, Defendant was entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff's ADEA claim as a matter of law. (Id.) Second, as it relates to Plaintiff's state law claims, the Magistrate Judge recommended that the court “remand the state law claims to the Lexington County Court of Common Pleas, ” but did not provide any reasoning for that recommendation. (See Id. at 16.)

         Both Plaintiff and Defendant specifically objected to the Report on November 20, 2018. (ECF Nos. 69, 70.) Plaintiff specifically asserts that the Report resolves a disputed material fact about the human resources investigation and does not consider all his pretext arguments. (ECF No. 70 at 5-6.) Additionally, Plaintiff argues that disproving or rebutting Defendant's legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason is sufficient to overcome summary judgment and “may give rise to a jury issue” under Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133 (2000). (Id.) Naturally, Defendant did not object to the Magistrate Judge's finding regarding Plaintiff's ADEA claim, however, Defendant did object to the Magistrate Judge's recommendation of remanding Plaintiff's state law claims. (ECF No. 69 at 3.) Defendant contends that the Report fails to address the relevant factors for the court's exercise of supplemental jurisdiction and argues that those factors, such as judicial economy and comity, weigh in favor of the court retaining jurisdiction over the state law claims and granting the entirety of its Motion for Summary Judgment. (Id. at 3-5.)

         On March 4, 2019, the court heard arguments from both parties regarding the Magistrate Judge's Report. During the hearing, Defendant argued for retaining supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff's state law claims. If his ADEA claim is dismissed, Plaintiff emphasized that this matter was first filed in the Lexington County Court of Common Pleas, complex state law is implicated, and the Magistrate Judge's Report does not analyze the state law claims, thereby warranting remand to state court. Plaintiff also maintained that he presented sufficient evidence of pretext under the ADEA, thereby allowing him to reach a jury and survive Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. Defendant vigorously argued that Plaintiff has failed to show that age was the but-for cause of his termination. Because this matter has been extensively argued and briefed, it is now ripe for the court's review. See generally Sauls v. Wyeth Pharm., Inc., 846 F.Supp.2d 499, 501 (D.S.C. 2012) (“The parties have fully briefed the issues, and this matter is ripe for consideration.”).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A. The Magistrate Judge's Report

         The Magistrate Judge's Report is made in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Local Civil Rule 73.02 for the District of South Carolina. The Magistrate Judge only makes a recommendation to this court, and the recommendation has no presumptive weight. See Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976). The responsibility to make a final determination remains with the court. Id. at 271. As such, the court is charged with making de novo determinations of those portions of the Report to which specific objections are made. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). See also Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(3). In the absence of specific objections to the Magistrate Judge's Report, the court is not required to give any explanation for adopting the Report. See Camby v. Davis, 718 F.2d 198, 199 (4th Cir. 1983). Rather, “in the absence of a timely filed objection, a district court need not conduct a de novo review, but instead must only satisfy itself that there is no clear error on the face of the record in order to accept the recommendation.” Diamond v. Colonial Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 72 advisory committee's note). Thus, the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the Magistrate Judge's recommendation or recommit the matter with instructions. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         B. Summary Judgement Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a)

         A federal court “shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “[S]ummary judgment is proper ‘if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.'” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). In a summary judgment motion, “[a] court must take care to ‘resolve all factual disputes and any competing, rational inferences in the light most favorable' to the party opposing that motion.” Rossignol v. Voorhaar, 316 F.3d 516, 523 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting Wightman v. Springfield Terminal Ry. Co., 100 F.3d 228, 230 (1st Cir. 1996)). Nevertheless, “the nonmoving party . . . must offer some ‘concrete evidence from which a reasonable juror could return a verdict in his [or her] favor.'” Williams v. Genex Servs., LLC, 809 F.3d 103, 109 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, ...


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