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Rumsey v. Brady Corp.

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

June 5, 2019

KIMBERLY RUMSEY, Plaintiff,
v.
BRADY CORPORATION, Defendant.

          ORDER

          DAVID C. NORTON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the court on defendant Brady Corporation's (“Brady”) renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law, ECF No. 78. For the reasons set forth below, the court grants the motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This action arises from plaintiff Kimberly Rumsey's (“Rumsey”) claims against Brady for gender discrimination and unlawful retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). A jury trial was held on March 18-20, 2019. At the close of Rumsey's case-in-chief, the court granted Brady's motion for judgment as a matter of law on Rumsey's gender discrimination claim but denied the motion as to Rumsey's retaliation claim. Brady renewed its motion for judgment as a matter of law on the retaliation claim at the close of evidence. The court sent the case to the jury and indicated that it would consider the motion post-verdict if need be. The jury sent several notes to the court and received an Allen charge. After about four hours of deliberation, the court received a note from the jury that said “we have one juror that will not listen to anyone.” Trial Tr. 642:9-13. The court offered for the parties to accept a less-than-unanimous verdict, which Rumsey declined. As a result, the court declared a mistrial.

         On April 17, 2019, Brady filed its renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law on the retaliation claim. ECF No. 78. Rumsey responded on May 6, 2019, ECF No. 82, and Brady replied on May 13, 2019, ECF No. 83. Pursuant to the court's instruction, Rumsey filed an amended response on May 17, 2019, ECF No. 84, and Brady replied to the amended response on May 24, 2019, ECF No. 85. The motion is now ripe for review.

         II. STANDARD

         Rule 50(b) provides that “[i]f the court does not grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law made under Rule 50(a) [before the case is submitted to the jury], the court is considered to have submitted the action to the jury subject to the court's later deciding the legal questions raised by the motion.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b). A trial court should award judgment as a matter of law to a movant pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b) “if a reasonable jury could only reach one conclusion based on the evidence or if the verdict in favor of the non-moving party would necessarily be based upon speculation and conjecture.” Myrick v. Prime Ins. Syndicate, Inc., 395 F.3d 485, 489 (4th Cir. 2005). A movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law “if the nonmoving party failed to make a showing on an essential element of his case with respect to which he had the burden of proof.” Price v. City of Charlotte, 93 F.3d 1241, 1249 (4th Cir. 1996).

         Judgment as a matter of law is appropriate when the evidence can support only one reasonable conclusion. See Chaudhry v. Gallerizzo, 174 F.3d 394, 405 (4th Cir. 1999). “[T]he evidence and all reasonable inferences from it are assessed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and the credibility of all evidence favoring the non-moving party is assumed.” Crinkley v. Holiday Inns, Inc., 844 F.2d 156, 160 (4th Cir. 1988). If there is any evidence on which a reasonable jury could return a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party, judgment as a matter of law should not be granted. Price, 93 F.3d at 1249.

         III. DISCUSSION

         Brady argues that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on Rumsey's retaliation claim because Rumsey failed to prove several elements of her case. Title VII prohibits retaliation “against an employee because, in relevant part, she ‘has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter.'” Boyer-Liberto v. Fontainebleau Corp., 786 F.3d 264, 281 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 2000e- 3(a)). A plaintiff may prove her retaliation case either though direct evidence or the burden-shifting framework established by McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Strothers v. City of Laurel, Md., 895 F.3d 317, 327 (4th Cir. 2018). Under the McDonnell Douglas framework, the plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of retaliation. Id. The elements of a prima facie Title VII retaliation case are (1) engagement in a protected activity; (2) adverse action against the plaintiff; and (3) a causal link between the protected activity and the adverse action. Id.; Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals, 626 F.3d 187, 190 (4th Cir. 2010). If a plaintiff proves these three elements, then the burden shifts to the defendant employer “to articulate a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for the adverse employment action.” Anderson v. G.D.C., Inc., 281 F.3d 452, 458 (4th Cir. 2002). If the defendant does so, the burden then shifts back to the plaintiff to “demonstrate that the employer's asserted reason is simply a pretext for retaliation.” Id. Brady contends that Rumsey failed to meet her burden of proof in both her prima facie case and in demonstrating pretext. The court finds that, based on the evidence presented at trial viewed in the light most favorable to Rumsey, no reasonable jury could find that Rumsey proved that she was engaged in activity protected by Title VII, the first element of her prima facie case.

         Brady argues that Rumsey failed to establish the first element of her prima facie case of retaliation because she did not have an objectively reasonable belief that Brady unlawfully discriminated against her based on her gender, meaning she was not engaged in activity protected by Title VII. As stated above, to establish a prima facie case of retaliation, a plaintiff must prove that she engaged in an activity protected by Title VII. Activity protected by Title VII includes an employee complaining to her superiors about suspected violations of Title VII, including suspected gender discrimination. Strothers, 895 F.3d at 328. Indeed, in order for a plaintiff to prove that he engaged in a protected activity, he “need ‘only . . . prove that he opposed an unlawful employment practice which he reasonably believed had occurred or was occurring.'” Coleman v. Loudoun Cty. Sch. Bd., 294 Fed.Appx. 778, 781 (4th Cir. 2008) (quoting Peters v. Jenney, 327 F.3d 307, 320 (4th Cir. 2003)). “This requires that the plaintiff: (1) have a good faith belief that the employer is engaging in an unlawful employment practice; and (2) that the belief is objectively reasonable in light of the facts.” Id. (emphasis added); see also Davis v. Dimensions Health Corp., 639 F.Supp.2d 610, 617 (D. Md. 2009) (“The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit explains that the inquiry is whether: (1) the plaintiff subjectively (in good faith) believed that the defendant engaged in an unlawful action; and (2) whether this belief was objectively reasonable in light of the facts.”).

         Here, Rumsey testified that she complained to Brady that she believed that Brady was discriminating against her based on her gender. Trial Tr. 84:25-86:15. The basis for this belief was that Rumsey's male counterpart was receiving more sales quote opportunities through a “quote wheel” than Rumsey was because Rumsey's male counterpart was on the wheel, and Rumsey was not. Trial Tr. 85:17-86:2. For the purposes of its motion, Brady accepts as true that Rumsey had “a good faith belief” that her absence on the quote wheel was a result of gender discrimination. However, Brady argues that Rumsey's belief was not objectively reasonable in light of the evidence presented at trial. “Complaining employees are protected by Title VII once they have an objectively reasonable belief that a Title VII violation has occurred.” Jordan v. Alternative Res. Corp., 467 F.3d 378, 380 (4th Cir. 2006) (emphasis in original); see also Strothers, 895 F.3d at 327 (“[C]omplaining employees are protected if, at the time of their complaint, they ‘have an objectively reasonable belief in light of all the circumstances that a Title VII violation has happened or is in progress.'”). “Because the analysis for determining whether an employee reasonably believes a practice is unlawful is an objective one, the issue may be resolved as a matter of law.” Jordan, 458 F.3d at 339. “[T]he test for objective reasonableness is not firmly established in the Fourth Circuit.” Durant v. SAFE Fed. Credit Union, 2015 WL 926013, at *8 (D.S.C. Mar. 4, 2015). However, a “[p]laintiff's evidence cannot establish objective reasonableness under any standard” when “she has offered no evidence that could lead a reasonable person to believe that the alleged offending conduct was . . . motivated” by her gender. Id.

         For example, in Davis v. Dimensions Health Corp., the court found that the plaintiff's belief that the defendant discriminated against him based on his gender and religion was objectively unreasonable because (1) the plaintiff conceded that none of his female coworkers ever made remarks or jokes about men or referenced gender, (2) the plaintiff admitted to having no knowledge of other male employees being harassed, and (3) it was undisputed that no one made derogatory or discriminatory remarks about the plaintiff's religion. 639 F.Supp.2d at 618. Similarly, in Perry v. Kappos, the court held that “[n]o objectively reasonable person in Plaintiff's position would believe, based on the facts posited by Plaintiff, that he or she was being discriminated against on the basis of race, gender, or color” because the record was “devoid of any evidence, aside from Plaintiff's own conclusory statements, ” that any other employee was discriminated on the basis of race, gender, or color and because the plaintiff offered no evidence corroborating his allegations of discrimination. 776 F.Supp.2d 182, 196-97 (E.D. Va. March 2, 2011).

         Rumsey testified at trial that she believed that she was subjected to gender discrimination solely because she was left off a quote wheel while her male counterpart was not. Trial Tr. 146:18-24. Indeed, Rumsey testified that she had no knowledge of her male supervisors making any discriminatory comments about her or other women. Id. 126:13-128:8. Rumsey also testified that she was not aware of those same male supervisors discriminating against other women at Brady. Id. 128:16-23. Furthermore, at the close of Rumsey's case in chief, the court granted a judgment as a matter of law against Rumsey on her gender discrimination claim. The court stated that, even in the light most favorable to Rumsey, there was no evidence on which a rational jury could rely to find that Rumsey was discriminated against on the basis of her gender when she was removed from the quote wheel. Trial Tr. 402:3-8. Even viewing the evidence at trial in the light most favorable to Rumsey, Rumsey simply did not present any ...


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