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Perkins v. International Paper Co.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

August 27, 2019

MATTHEW PERKINS, Plaintiff - Appellant,

          Argued: May 9, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, at Columbia. Terry L. Wooten, Senior District Judge. (3:16-cv-00172-TLW)


          Shannon Marie Polvi, CROMER BABB PORTER & HICKS, LLC, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellant.

          Matthew J. Gilley, FORD & HARRISON LLP, Spartanburg, South Carolina, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Kristin S. Gray, FORD & HARRISON LLP, Spartanburg, South Carolina, for Appellee.

          Before NIEMEYER, KEENAN, and QUATTLEBAUM, Circuit Judges.


         Alleging race-based discrimination, Matthew Perkins brought claims for: (1) disparate treatment, (2) hostile work environment, (3) constructive discharge and (4) retaliation against International Paper Company ("IPC") under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e, et seq., ("Title VII").[1] After discovery, IPC moved for summary judgment. The district court adopted the magistrate judge's recommendation to grant IPC's motion concluding there were no genuine issues of material fact as to any of his claims. Perkins now appeals that order of summary judgment. After a de novo review, we affirm.


         In 1984, Perkins, an African American male, began working as a technician at what is now IPC's Eastover paper mill (the "Eastover Mill").[2] Perkins continued working there until 2014, when he retired. Perkins alleges in his Amended Complaint that, during his time at IPC, he experienced race-based discrimination. Our review of the record indicates that Perkins' evidence of this alleged discrimination falls into three categories: (1) mistreatment in various ways compared to white employees; (2) improper denials of requests for promotions; and (3) racially offensive conduct and statements at work.

         In reviewing the details of these categories, we begin with Perkins' allegations of mistreatment compared to white employees. Perkins testified that in its program to provide financial assistance to employees who pursued higher education, IPC increased the amount of assistance several years after his benefits had been paid. Perkins said it was unfair for IPC to deny his 2007 request for retroactive payment of the new amount when it approved the new amount for current participants, including white employees. Perkins also testified that in his department's 2007 ranking of the technicians for feedback purposes, most of the technicians ranked near the bottom, including himself, were African Americans and females. Additionally, Perkins said the assignment of employees to the twelve-hour shift on the "wet end" of a machine and the shorter shift on the "dry end" of the same machine, which began in 2010, was unfair to African Americans. Perkins testified this practice stopped after he reported it. Last, Perkins testified that after the implementation of a policy monitoring overtime in 2013, he was questioned about the reasons he was working overtime, but never saw his white co-workers asked the same questions. Perkins' co-workers also testified that the IPC workplace rules and practices were enforced more stringently against African American employees than white employees and that some white employees did not talk to and otherwise shunned African American employees.

         Perkins' second category of evidence involves the denials of requests for promotions. Although he offered minimal detail on the race or the qualifications of the employees who received the positions, Perkins testified that, between 2007 and 2013, he was passed over for several promotion opportunities. Perkins' co-workers also said that white employees were promoted more often than African American employees.

         The record reveals a third category, racially offensive conduct and statements. Perkins acknowledged no such statements were made to him or even in his presence while he was at IPC. But Perkins heard second-hand about a white employee making and wearing a KKK hat at work in 2006. Also, several years before 2014, he was told that an African American female employee overheard a white employee, when given a work assignment, complain that he was being asked to work like a n*****.

         In addition, Perkins' co-workers testified about incidents about which Perkins had no knowledge. An African American female co-employee testified she was told by other technicians that a white male technician referred to her on multiple occasions as a black b***h and a n*****. Two other African American co-employees testified that an African American male employee told them of an instance where a white male employee told the African American male he had come through the "white door" and needed to go back out of the building and enter through the "black door." The co-workers did not testify as to when these comments were made.

         Against this backdrop, Perkins testified about his departure from IPC. After approximately 30 years at IPC, in the Spring of 2014, Perkins began considering retirement. He also explored other employment options. Specifically, Perkins applied for employment as a full-time case worker with a non-profit organization for which he had volunteered in the past.

         Later, while still at IPC, one of the managers in his department accused Perkins of failing to complete his job responsibilities the prior week. According to Perkins, the uncompleted work was another worker's responsibility, not his. Perkins testified that because of this incident, he felt IPC would get rid of him if he did not leave. While he did not officially retire until two and one-half months later, Perkins never returned to work. During the time period from the day he stopped working until his retirement, Perkins received accumulated vacation and holiday leave pay. Just three days after the accusation about his job responsibilities, Perkins began full-time employment with the non-profit.

         After he stopped working at IPC, an IPC human resources manager conducted Perkins' exit interview. In the interview, Perkins said that his job at IPC was the best job he ever had, but the opportunity came at a significant price. He reported the treatment outlined above. Perkins also said educated minorities cannot make it in his former department. He claimed that his department manager covered up for and protected another employee, was a hot head, did not listen, never gave him any feedback and did not follow procedures. Perkins said no one at IPC thanked him for working during an ice storm. Perkins claimed he left IPC because he had no ability to provide a positive influence, was devalued, could not sleep at night, and experienced racism and prejudice. Perkins added that high blood pressure and shoulder pain were additional reasons he left.

         Perkins later filed a complaint with IPC's Ethics Helpline and met with the Eastover Mill Manager. In both the complaint and meeting, Perkins repeated the allegations of discrimination he reported in his exit interview.[3] On November 1, 2014, Perkins officially retired from IPC.

         On January 8, 2015, Perkins filed a charge of discrimination with the South Carolina Humans Affairs Commission ("SCHAC") and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") alleging race discrimination, retaliation and disparate treatment. Perkins alleged that from April 1, 2014, through November 1, 2014, he was subjected to disparate terms and conditions. After receiving his right-to-sue letter, Perkins filed a lawsuit against IPC in state court. IPC removed the case to federal court and, after discovery, moved for summary judgment. The magistrate judge recommended that summary judgment be granted as to all of Perkins' claims. The district court adopted the recommendation granting IPC's motion for summary judgment. Perkins timely appealed.


         This Court "review[s] the district court's grant of summary judgment de novo, applying the same legal standards as the district court and viewing the facts and inferences drawn from the facts in the light most favorable to . . . the nonmoving party." Evans v. Techs. Applications & Serv. Co., 80 F.3d 954, 958 (4th Cir. 1996). Summary judgment should be granted when "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). When a party fails to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). To avoid summary judgment, the opposing party must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). If there are genuine issues of material fact, a court should not weigh the evidence. Id. at 249. But "where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, disposition by summary judgment is appropriate." Teamsters Joint Council No. 83 v. Centra, Inc., 947 F.2d 115, 119 (4th Cir. 1991).


         All of Perkins' claims are based on Title VII. Title VII prohibits discrimination "against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2. This provision is sometimes referred to as the "anti-discrimination" provision. In a separate section, Title VII outlaws discrimination based an employee's opposition to conduct made unlawful by Title VII or participation in any Title VII investigation, proceeding or hearing. 42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e-3. This provision is sometimes referred to as the "anti-retaliation" provision. Perkins' claims for disparate treatment, hostile work environment and constructive discharge fall under § 2000e-2. His retaliation claim falls under § 2000e-3.[4]

         On appeal, Perkins argues the district court erred in granting IPC summary judgment on each of his claims. With respect to his disparate treatment claim, Perkins argues the district court did not even address this claim, but instead improperly relied on the magistrate judge's decision on timeliness. With respect to the hostile work environment claim, Perkins argues he provided sufficient evidence of a severe or pervasive environment. With respect to his constructive discharge claim, Perkins appears to argue that the same facts that establish a hostile work environment establish a constructive discharge. Last, regarding his retaliation claim, Perkins argues ...

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