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Huffman v. Sunshine Recycling, LLC

Supreme Court of South Carolina

March 27, 2019

Meredith Huffman, Respondent,
Sunshine Recycling, LLC and Aiken Electric Cooperative, Inc., Petitioners. Appellate Case No. 2016-002080

          Heard March 6, 2018

          Appeal from Orangeburg County Maité Murphy, Circuit Court Judge

          Breon C. M. Walker and Jessica Ann Waller, both of Gallivan, White & Boyd, PA; and Pope D. Johnson III, all of Columbia, for Petitioners.

          James Todd Rutherford, of The Rutherford Law Firm, LLC; and Robert Fredrick Goings and Jessica Lee Gooding, both of Goings Law Firm, LLC, all of Columbia, for Respondent.



         Following her arrest for receiving stolen goods, Meredith Huffman filed a complaint against the Orangeburg County Sheriff's Department (the Sheriff's Department), Sunshine Recycling, LLC (Sunshine), and Aiken Electric Cooperative, Inc. (Aiken), for negligence, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution. Huffman later settled her claims against the Sheriff's Department, and the two parties filed a stipulation dismissing the Sheriff's Department from the action.[1] The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Sunshine and Aiken. The court of appeals reversed. Huffman v. Sunshine Recycling, LLC, 417 S.C. 514, 790 S.E.2d 401 (Ct. App. 2016). Both Sunshine and Aiken filed petitions for writs of certiorari to review the court of appeals' opinion. We granted the petitions, and now reverse the court of appeals' opinion as to Sunshine and affirm as to Aiken.

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         On May 16, 2010, seventy pounds of copper wire and fifty pounds of aluminum tie wire were stolen from Aiken. In total, the stolen wire was worth $463.19.

         The following day, Mark Goss, Aiken's Loss Control and Safety Coordinator, and Deputy Maurice Huggins viewed a surveillance video from Aiken that depicted an unidentified black male removing copper and aluminum wiring from Aiken trucks. An Aiken employee also reported seeing a white Ford truck driving out of Aiken's parking lot around the time of the theft. As was Goss's typical practice when Aiken suffered a loss of this nature, Goss checked with local metal recyclers to see if the thief tried to sell the copper and aluminum.

         Goss's search led him to Sunshine. Goss testified he arrived at Sunshine the morning following the theft and only two customers had come in. Goss told Sunshine's owner, Joseph Rich, he was looking for stolen copper and aluminum wire believed to have been taken by a black male in a white Ford pickup truck. Rich took Goss into the metal drop-off area to look for the stolen items. Goss identified Aiken's materials which were comingled with other metals. Rich, who claimed to speak Spanish, spoke to an unidentified Spanish-speaking employee working in the metal drop-off area. According to Goss, the Spanish-speaking employee informed Rich a white woman had brought the copper and aluminum wire to Sunshine.[2] However, Rich later testified in his deposition the Spanish-speaking employee informed him "that the first person in the warehouse that was selling materials in that group was a white woman." (emphasis added.) There is no indication Rich asked the employee about any subsequent customers.

         Officer Ashley Aldridge of the Sheriff's Department arrived at Sunshine to investigate the theft. Goss informed Aldridge he believed a black male in a white Ford truck was involved and told Aldridge what Aiken's surveillance video showed, that an Aiken employee saw a white truck leaving Aiken at the time of the robbery, and what the Spanish-speaking employee at Sunshine reported. Rich told Aldridge and Goss they were welcome to view the receipts documenting the amounts paid to customers who sold metal to Sunshine that morning and the time-stamped video footage of customers waiting at the payment window. Aldridge viewed the video, saw Huffman waiting for her payment of $53, and obtained a copy of Huffman's receipt. Rich also informed Aldridge that Sunshine had a video of the metal dropoff area and, although there were issues with the video playback that morning, he would provide Goss and the Sheriff's Department with a copy.

         The next day, May 18, 2010, Officer James Ethridge visited Sunshine to photograph the metal identified by Goss as stolen from Aiken. Ethridge testified that when he arrived at Sunshine, Sunshine employees had already pulled copies of Huffman's invoice, receipt, and driver's license. While at Sunshine, Ethridge spoke with Rich, who reiterated the employees working in the drop-off area had informed him Huffman was the individual who brought in the items and she was driving a red truck. Rich also stated he had not yet obtained a copy of the video showing the metal drop-off area but would contact Sunshine's security servicer to request a copy of the video for Ethridge.

         Officer Ethridge's report regarding the incident stated Goss contacted Ethridge and claimed he (Goss) had spoken with Huffman at Sunshine on May 17, 2010, while she was waiting to get paid for "the items that she had just brought in." According to the report, Goss also told Ethridge, "He viewed the items after [Huffman] left and identified them as" belonging to Aiken. In his deposition, Goss denied ever speaking to Huffman.

         Over the course of the next few days, Goss repeatedly contacted Officer Ethridge to ask how the case was progressing and whether an arrest had been made. While still waiting to view the video, Officer Ethridge contacted a local magistrate and obtained a warrant for Huffman's arrest for receiving stolen goods[3] based on the information he obtained from Aiken and Sunshine. After learning of the warrant for her arrest, Huffman voluntarily went to the Sheriff's Department and spoke with Ethridge. In her statement, Huffman advised Ethridge she sold metal to Sunshine on the day in question but it was not stolen; rather, it was salvaged from a mobile home belonging to Huffman and her husband that the couple were in the process of tearing down. Huffman provided Ethridge with metal similar to what she took to Sunshine and pictures of the mobile home from which she removed the metal.

         Following their discussion, Officer Ethridge arrested Huffman, placed her in handcuffs, and transported her to the detention center where she was required to change into a prison jumpsuit and wait for the next bond hearing. Huffman was not allowed to call to check on her children, who were home alone, [4] and was required to appear at the bond hearing handcuffed and shackled. Huffman obtained a personal recognizance bond, and was released at approximately 5:00 p.m.

         After Huffman's arrest and release-more than seventeen days after the theft from Aiken-Officer Ethridge finally viewed the video of Huffman dropping off her items at Sunshine. The video depicted Huffman removing some copper wiring from her red truck that resembled the copper taken from Aiken, and some aluminum siding, not wire. Around the same time, Goss received a copy of the video from Sunshine. Goss testified the video "clearly" showed Huffman unloading "a little small pile of copper," then a black male in a white Ford truck coming in after Huffman and unloading "massive [] quantities of copper and aluminum out of his truck." Rich never viewed the video. Ethridge informed Rich "that after viewing the video[, ] it d[id] not show [Huffman] with the same items that w[ere] taken. Due to these facts there is not enough evidence to support this case." Days lat er, the black male in question was identified as Eugene James. The Sheriff's Department located James, he admitted to stealing the wire from Aiken, and pled guilty.

         Huffman filed a complaint against the Sheriff's Department, Aiken, and Sunshine asserting negligence, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution. The trial court granted summary judgment as to both Sunshine and Aiken and Huffman appealed.

         The court of appeals reversed the trial court's rulings and remanded the case to the lower court. Huffman, 417 S.C. at 532, 790 S.E.2d at 411. As to Huffman's false imprisonment claims, the court of appeals found there were genuine factual issues material to the unlawfulness of Huffman's arrest and the complicity of both Sunshine and Aiken in her arrest. Id. at 523, 709 S.E.2d at 406. The court of appeals found the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to Sunshine and Aiken on Huffman's malicious prosecution claims because there were genuine factual issues material to probable cause as well as the complicity of Sunshine and Aiken in proceeding with the charge of receiving stolen goods against Huffman. Id. at 530, 709 S.E.2d at 410.

         Following the denial of Sunshine and Aiken's petition for rehearing, we granted Sunshine's and Aiken's separate petitions for writs of certiorari to review the court of appeals' decision.

         II. Standard of Review

         This Court reviews the grant of a summary judgment motion under the same standard applied by the trial court pursuant to Rule 56(c), SCRCP. Woodson v. DLI Props., LLC, 406 S.C. 517, 528, 753 S.E.2d 428, 434 (2014). Summary judgment is properly granted when, viewing the evidence and inferences to be drawn therefrom in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party, the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions, and affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Rule 56(c), SCRCP; Woodson, 406 S.C. at 528, 753 S.E.2d at 434.

         "In determining whether any triable issues of fact exist for summary judgment purposes, the evidence and all the inferences [that] can be reasonably drawn from the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party . . . [who] is only required to submit a mere scintilla of evidence in order to withstand a motion for summary judgment." Hancock v. Mid-S. Mgmt., 381 S.C. 326, 329-31, 673 S.E.2d 801, 802-03 (2009).

         III. Discussion

         A. Sunshine

         Sunshine's argument is twofold. First, Sunshine claims the court of appeals erred in imposing an unprecedented duty on a witness to perform its own investigation before assisting law enforcement with their criminal investigation. Sunshine claims such a duty has never been recognized in this state. Second, Sunshine contends the court of appeals erred in reversing the trial court's grant of summary judgment as to Huffman's false imprisonment and malicious prosecution claims. Specifically, Sunshine maintains that, even if we were to find a witness has a duty to investigate, the court of appeals erred in concluding Huffman offered sufficient evidence to survive Sunshine's motion for summary judgment. We agree and, therefore, reverse the court of appeals' decision as to Sunshine.

         1. Creation of an unprecedented duty

         False imprisonment consists of depriving a person of his or her liberty without lawful justification. Law v. S.C. Dep't of Corr., 368 S.C. 424, 440, 629 S.E.2d 642, 651 (2006). "To prevail on a claim for false imprisonment, the plaintiff must establish: (1) the defendant restrained the plaintiff, (2) the restraint was intentional, and (3) the restraint was unlawful." Id. "The fundamental issue in determining the lawfulness of an arrest is whether there was probable cause to make the arrest." Id. at 441, 629 S.E.2d at 651. "Probable cause is defined as a good faith belief that a person is guilty of a crime when this belief rests on such grounds as would induce an ordinarily prudent and cautious man, under the circumstances, to believe likewise." Id.

         To sustain an action for malicious prosecution, "a plaintiff must establish: (1) the institution or continuation of original judicial proceedings; (2) by or at the instance of the defendant; (3) termination of such proceedings in plaintiff's favor; (4) malice in instituting such proceedings; (5) lack of probable cause; and (6) resulting injury or damage." Law, 368 S.C. at 435, 629 S.E.2d at 648. "Malice is defined as 'the deliberate intentional doing of a wrongful act without just cause or excuse.'" Eaves v. Broad River Elec. Co-Op., Inc., 277 S.C. ...

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