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Saulsberry v. Savannah River Remediation, LLC

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

August 7, 2019

Adrienne W. Saulsberry, Plaintiff,
Savannah River Remediation, LLC, Defendant.


         This matter is before the court for review of the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation (“Report”) filed on March 28, 2019. (ECF No. 68.) The Magistrate Judge recommends that the court grant in part and deny in part Defendant Savannah River Remediation, LLC's (“SRR”) Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 45), which concerned Plaintiff Adrienne W. Saulsberry's (“Saulsberry”) claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e to 2000e-17, and 28 U.S.C. § 1981. (Id. at 13-14.) The Magistrate Judge recommended that the court grant in part and deny in part SRR's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Id. at 1, 13-14.)

         On June 25, 2019, the court heard arguments from SRR and Saulsberry about their specific objections to findings within the Magistrate Judge's Report. (ECF No. 81.) After careful consideration of SRR's Motion for Summary Judgment, the Magistrate Judge's Report, both parties' objections to the Magistrate Judge's Report, and the parties' arguments at the hearing, the court ACCEPTS IN PART and REJECTS IN PART the Magistrate Judge's Report. Accordingly, the court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART SRR's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 45). Specifically, the court GRANTS SRR's Motion as to Saulsberry's claims based upon her termination in SRR's 2013 Workforce Reduction (“WFR”), but DENIES SRR's Motion concerning Saulsberry's Title VII and § 1981 disparate treatment claims based upon (1) intentional race discrimination in failing to hire her for the 2014 First Line Manager (“FLM”) position; (2) retaliation, taking the form of her rejection from the 2014 FLM position, for filing a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) in April 2014 and an internal grievance beforehand; and (3) a failure to hire her for any positions for which she did not apply.


         Saulsberry is an African-American female who possesses an undergraduate degree in chemistry and also a graduate degree in education. (ECF No. 45-2 at 6.) Since the age of nineteen (19), Saulsberry has been previously employed by SRR, a nuclear facility located in Aiken, South Carolina, and worked for SRR for approximately twenty-three (23) years. (ECF No. 1 at ¶ 1; ECF No. 61-3 at 1 ¶ 1, 4 ¶ 16.) When starting her career with a predecessor to SRR, Saulsberry initially worked in a clerical department. (ECF No. 45-2 at 7.) In 1994, Saulsberry eventually became employed with SRR as a Radiological Control (“RADCON”) inspector, a worker who specializes in examining, handling, and surveying radioactive sources. (Id.; ECF No. 61-4 at 2.) In 2006, Saulsberry was promoted to a Radiological Control Work Planner, a position she held until she received another promotion in 2008. (ECF No. 61-4 at 1.) From 2008 to 2013, Saulsberry worked as a FLM, which required her to perform a variety of management and supervisory duties at SRR, including, but not limited to, ensuring the radiological health of employees, the monitoring of nuclear workers, and the performance of audits. (Id.) Saulsberry's supervisors were John Gall and Timothy Kerrigan, both of whom seemed to report to Jim Wilson. (ECF No. 45-2 at 11; ECF No. 68 at 2.) During her lengthy tenure with SRR, Saulsberry never received any “written warnings or disciplinary actions” regarding her job performance. (ECF No. 61-5 at 3.) In fact, in March 2013, SRR recognized Saulsberry for her contributions, and she received a salary increase. (ECF No. 61-6 at 1.)

         On or about September 2013, SRR was notified by the Department of Energy (“DOE”) that the funding levels to support its liquid waste operations would decrease by approximately one hundred million dollars ($100, 000, 000.00). (ECF No. 45-1 at 5; ECF No. 45-2 at 79-80.) As a result of the funding cut, SRR purportedly terminated approximately two hundred and ninety (290) employees pursuant to its WFR, and it notified Saulsberry that she was part of the WFR on September 13, 2013, resulting in her effective termination on September 27, 2013. (ECF No. 45-1 at 5; ECF No. 45-2 at 11, 117; ECF No. 61-42 at 1.) Upon her termination from SRR, Saulsberry filed an internal complaint with the company on September 17, 2013, [1] alleging that she was selected for the WFR because of her race and for previously opposing race discrimination in the workplace. (ECF No. 61-10 at 1-3.) SRR's internal investigation concluded that Saulsberry's selection for the WFR was not because of her race. (See ECF No. 61-14.) Stephanie Franklin, an employee of SRR's Human Resources Department, interviewed other employees within SRR, including Saulsberry, Patricia Allen, Tim Kerrigan, Mildred Jackson, Jim Wilson, Carol Hunter, Kimberly Arlen, Margaret Mozone, John Gall, and Cindy Head. (ECF No. 45-1 at 10; ECF No. 45-14 at 8-9.) As a result of her internal investigation, Franklin was unable to conclude that Saulsberry's selection for the WFR resulted from unlawful discrimination. (ECF No. 45-2 at 44; ECF No. 61-58 at 11-12.) Upon learning of SRR's finding, on April 7, 2014, Saulsberry then filed a formal charge with the EEOC. (ECF No. 45-2 at 129.)

         Because she was terminated as part of the WFR, Saulsberry was eligible for a hiring preference developed pursuant to Section 3161 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1993. Pub. L. No. 102-484, § 3161, 106 Stat. 2315, 2644-46 (1992) (codified at 50 U.S.C. § 2704). Adhering to Section 3161, SRR adopted its Workforce Restructuring Plan for the Savannah River Site (“Workforce Restructuring Plan”). (ECF No. 45-2 at 72.) Pursuant to the Workforce Restructuring Plan, “[t]o the extent practicable, eligible involuntarily separate contractor employees who meet the eligibility requirements contained in this Plan will receive a hiring preference with respect to vacancies for positions for which they are qualified, or, to the extent practicable in the circumstances, for which they may become qualified.” (ECF No. 45-2 at 86 (emphasis added).) In order to obtain the preference, eligible employees were required to “recertify” their eligibility for the preference on a yearly basis. (See id.) Both parties agree that Saulsberry complied with these procedures for the hiring preference under Section 3161 and held the preference in 2013, 2014, and 2015. (ECF No. 45-1 at 9; ECF No. 45-9 at 6-7; ECF No. 61 at 10; ECF No. 61-18 at 1-3; ECF No. 61-38 at 1.) Gayl Hoel, an employee within the Human Resources Department at SRR, would “usually . . . call” individuals and “ask them what they were interested in” if they were eligible for the preference. (ECF No. 45-9 at 6-7.) Hoel expressly states that she called individuals after the WFR, but did not keep notes about which individuals she called about job positions. (See id.)

         Around May 18, 2014, Saulsberry found SRR's posting for a FLM position and decided to apply. (ECF No. 61-3 at 1.) When Saulsberry submitted her application, individuals within SRR noted that there was “sensitivity surrounding” her application to the position, but those individuals did not specifically detail what that “sensitivity” entailed. (ECF No. 61-49 at 1.) Nevertheless, on June 16, 2014, SRR cancelled the posting viewed by Saulsberry and re-posted the position.[2] (ECF No. 61-25 at 1.) Saulsberry applied for the subsequent posting of the FLM position after being notified of the reposting that impacted her previous application. (ECF No. 45-2 at 32; ECF No. 61-3 at 2; ECF No. 61-59 at 26.) Saulsberry maintains that she never received a courtesy call or proactive communication regarding any vacancies at SRR, however, Robert Hicks, a white male who was also part of the WFR in 2013 and provided with retirement benefits, received a phone call from a friend employed at SRR informing him of available positions. (ECF No. 45-2 at 30- 31; ECF No. 45-13 at 4-5; ECF No. 61-3 at 2.) DOE acknowledges that SRR contacted former employees “who may have been eligible” for the hiring preference.[3] (ECF No. 61-21 at 3.) In August 2014, Saulsberry, along with four (4) other candidates, was selected for an interview for the 2014 FLM position. (ECF No. 61-62 at 17.) The other individuals selected for interviews included Joseph Butler, Robert Hicks, Alyson Jennings, and David Travis, all of whom were white. (ECF No. 61-62 at 14, 20, 33.) Of all of these candidates, as indicated in an e-mail from Gayl Hoel and depositions from some of the interviewees, only Saulsberry was eligible for the hiring preference under Section 3161, while the others were not. (See ECF No. 45-13 at 5; ECF No. 61- 26 at 1.) However, for some reason, although he was not eligible, SRR allowed Robert Hicks to be categorized as a preferential applicant under Section 3161. (See ECF No. 61-26 at 1; ECF No. 61-21 at 3.) Moreover, Saulsberry previously supervised both Robert Hicks and Alyson Jennings when she was a FLM, and she also received a higher score than Robert Hicks for rankings used during the WFR.[4] (ECF No. 61-28 at 2; ECF No. 61-63 at 4; ECF No. 61-43 at 1; ECF No. 61-57 at 1.) Of particular note, Alyson Jennings was not qualified for the position, but she received an interview. (See ECF No. 61-3 at 3-5; ECF No. 61-62 at 19.)

         On August 21, 2014, all four (4) candidates were interviewed by a panel consisting of three (3) different managers at SRR, specifically: (1) Cindy Head, the SRR Hiring Manager (white);[5](2) Charles Lampley, the SRR Training Manager (African-American); and (3) Chuck Sanders, the Safety and Health Manager (white). (See ECF No. 45-1 at 11 n.14; ECF No. 61-62 at 17-21.) Cindy Head was previously involved in at least one (1) discrimination complaint lodged by Saulsberry. (ECF No. 61-14 at 3; ECF No. 61-62 at 25.) The interview evaluation consisted of questions examining an applicant's leadership, management, teamwork, and technical abilities, among numerous other considerations, and the scores therefrom were eventually weighted. (Id. at 84-88.) Robert Hicks received the highest interview score, followed by Joseph Butler, Alyson Jennings, David Travis, and, finally, Saulsberry. (See id.; ECF No. 61-30 at 1.) While the interview panel acknowledged that Saulsberry “has experience” as a FLM, they decided that she “demonstrates obvious weakness in leadership and soft skills that would require significant management oversight.” (ECF No. 61-30 at 1.) Ultimately, Saulsberry was not hired for the position, and, instead, SRR hired Robert Hicks and Joseph Butler, the two applicants who received the highest interview scores that day. (ECF No. 61-62 at 36; ECF No. 61-59 at 26.) In essence, even though they may not have been the most qualified holistically, according to SRR, individuals receiving the highest interview scores on that day were selected for the 2014 FLM position. (See ECF No. 45-1 at 31; ECF No. 61-62 at 35-37; ECF No. 73 at 10.)

         After these events, because she was not hired for the 2014 FLM position, Saulsberry filed another charge with the EEOC on September 14, 2014. (ECF No. 45-2 at 131.) After filing her charge, additional FLM positions became open in 2015, however, Saulsberry was not contacted about those positions, purportedly because of an administrative oversight at SRR. (ECF No. 61-21 at 3.) Interestingly, Gayl Hoel stated that she had made courtesy calls to encourage Section 3161 employees to apply for positions, but she cannot specifically remember whether she called preferential employees in 2015, the time during which these three (3) FLM positions were open. (ECF No. 61-66 at 17.) On May 11, 2016, Saulsberry was advised of her right to initiate suit against SRR within ninety (90) days by the EEOC. (ECF No. 45-2 at 133.) Subsequently, Saulsberry commenced the instant action. (ECF No. 1.)

         Saulsberry filed her Complaint in the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina on August 10, 2016. (Id.) Within her Complaint, Saulsberry brings the following claims, all on the grounds of race, against SRR: (1) intentional discrimination under Title VII as it relates to her inclusion in the WFR, application for the 2014 FLM position, and future positions for which she did not apply; (2) retaliation under Title VII concerning her inclusion in the WFR after her participation in an investigation with the EEOC; (3) retaliation under Title VII for SRR's refusal to rehire her for the 2014 FLM position after she filed a Complaint with the EEOC; (4) intentional discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 for her inclusion in the WFR; and (5) retaliation under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 for SRR's refusal to rehire her after she filed complaints of race discrimination. (Id. at 18-22 ¶¶ 135-65.) After extensive discovery between the parties, SRR filed its Motion for Summary Judgment “as to all of” Saulsberry's claims on September 14, 2018. (ECF No. 45 at 1.) Saulsberry filed her Response in Opposition to SRR's Motion on February 5, 2019, maintaining that she has presented sufficient evidence to proceed to a jury. (ECF No. 61.)

         The Magistrate Judge filed her Report, providing a recommendation about SRR's Motion, on March 28, 2019. (ECF No. 68.) Within the Report, the Magistrate Judge first recognized that Saulsberry did not oppose SRR's Motion concerning claims about her selection for the WFR or SRR's failure to hire her for future positions for which she did not apply. (Id. at 6 n.2.) Secondly, as it related to the 2014 FLM position, the Magistrate Judge reasoned that Saulsberry established her prima facie case of disparate treatment and retaliation. (Id. at 6-13.) Concerning her disparate treatment claim of the 2014 FLM position, the Magistrate Judge found that there was sufficient evidence to “reasonably support an inference that white former employees were treated more favorably than Saulsberry in connection with the 3161 rehiring preference.” (Id. at 7.) For example, the Magistrate Judge noted that the record “supports an inference that SRR affirmatively undertook ‘courtesy calls' to certain former employees who were white but not Saulsberry” and that the rehiring preference does not compel the application of the preference only when two applicants are “identically qualified.” (Id. 7-8 (citations omitted).) Further analyzing Saulsberry's disparate treatment claim, the Magistrate Judge concluded that Saulsberry provided sufficient evidence of pretext to reach a jury because (1) she possessed superior qualifications to other applicants for the position, (2) other applicants did not even have the minimum qualifications for the job, (3) ineligible applicants were questionably given a hiring preference, and (4) e-mails suggest that employees within SRR opined that there was “sensitivity surrounding” her situation and that Saulsberry should be “unconsider[ed]” from the 2014 FLM position. (Id. at 9-11.) For many of the same reasons, the Magistrate Judge also reasoned that Saulsberry's retaliation claim should also proceed to trial. (Id. at 12.) According to the Magistrate Judge, a causal connection exists between the adverse action suffered by Saulsberry and her protected activity because “some members of the interview panel were interviewed in connection with [an] internal investigation into Saulsberry's complaint.” (Id.) In rejecting SRR's temporal proximity argument to causation, the Magistrate Judge emphasized that Saulsberry was terminated “before filing the EEOC charge and [SRR] therefore had no opportunity to retaliate until much later when [she] reapplied for a job.” (Id. at 12-13.) For all of those reasons, the Report recommends that the court grant SRR's Motion as to the WFR and future positions for which Saulsberry did not apply, but deny SRR's Motion concerning status-based discrimination and retaliation for the 2014 FLM position. (Id. at 13-14.)

         The Magistrate Judge also notified the parties of the opportunity to file specific objections to the Report. (Id. at 15.) Both the SRR and Saulsberry timely filed objections to the Magistrate Judge's Report. (ECF Nos. 73, 74.) SRR first alleges that the Magistrate Judge erred by finding that Saulsberry established a prima facie case regarding the 2014 FLM position and should not have used a general, disparate treatment standard, but the failure-to-hire standard for disparate treatment cases. (ECF No. 73 at 2.) SRR emphasizes that it had no obligation to contact Saulsberry about open positions, did not contact individuals in a discriminatory manner, and Section 3161 does not mandate that SRR affirmatively contact employees eligible for a hiring preference. (Id. at 3-5.) SRR also argues that it complied with Section 3161 and properly used it as a “tie breaker, ” in contrast to the Magistrate Judge's interpretation of Section 3161 that rejected its interpretation of the policy being used as a “tie breaker.” (See Id. at 7-9.) Lastly, SRR objects to the Magistrate Judge's findings regarding Saulsberry's retaliation claims, maintaining that Saulsberry failed to establish a prima facie case and provide any evidence of pretext. (Id. at 17-18.) SRR requests that the court grant the entirety of its Motion for Summary Judgment and reject the Magistrate Judge's Report. (Id. at 18.) Saulsberry replied to SRR's Objections on June 13, 2019, largely emphasizing that the Magistrate Judge correctly found that there was sufficient evidence establishing her prima facie case and showing that SRR's actions were pretextual. (ECF No. 76.)

         On May 30, 2019, Saulsberry filed her Objections. (ECF No. 74.) As an initial matter, Saulsberry “agrees with the [c]ourt” and concedes that her claims regarding the WFR will not proceed to a jury because she did not file her suit within ninety (90) days as it relates to those claims. (ECF 74 at 2 n.1.) Nevertheless, Saulsberry maintains that the Magistrate Judge erred in determining that she abandoned her discrimination and retaliation claims concerning future FLM positions for which she did not apply. (Id. at 2.) Saulsberry submits that SRR “appears to have misled the [c]ourt into believing that [it] had actually moved for summary judgment on [her] third claim of discrimination . . . .” (Id.) Saulsberry vigorously argues that SRR “never once mentioned that the [c]ourt should dismiss [her] claims for positions that came open after 2014 based upon the grounds that [she] did not apply.” (Id. at 5.) Essentially, Saulsberry notes that SRR never moved for summary judgment as to that claim. (See id.) After identifying that SRR failed to move for summary judgment as to her final ground for discrimination, Saulsberry contends that there is a genuine issue of material fact as it relates to that claim. (Id. at 6-10.) For those reasons, Saulsberry requests that the court overrule SRR's Objections and deny in part SRR's Motion for Summary Judgment. (See Id. at 9.)

         The court heard arguments from both parties on June 25, 2019. (ECF No. 81.) SRR emphasized that the Magistrate Judge erred by concluding that Saulsberry established a prima facie case of race discrimination and further argued that it complied with the hiring preferences mandated by federal law. SRR particularly stressed the Magistrate Judge's findings of pretext. In response, Saulsberry maintained that the Magistrate Judge improperly recommended summary judgment as to her claims regarding open FLM positions for which she did not apply and urged the court to adopt the remaining aspects of the Magistrate Judge's Report. Because this matter has been extensively briefed and argued, 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.”).


         A. The Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation

         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 and Recommendation 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 Judgment

         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)).

         In other words, “[a]t the summary judgment stage, facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party only if there is a ‘genuine' dispute as to those facts.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). 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) (alteration in original) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256 (1986)). Summary judgment is therefore appropriate “when the nonmoving party has the burden of proof on an ...

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