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Jenkins v. Georgia-Pacific Wood Products, LLC

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Anderson/Greenwood Division

September 5, 2019

Karen Jenkins, Plaintiff,
v.
Georgia-Pacific Wood Products, LLC, Defendant.

          REPORT OF MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          Kevin F. McDonald United States Magistrate Judge.

         This matter is before the court on the defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings as to Counts 1 and 2 of the plaintiff's complaint (doc. 15). In her complaint, the plaintiff alleges causes of action for (1) breach of contract; (2) breach of contract accompanied by a fraudulent act; and (3) race discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (doc. 1). The defendant filed its motion for judgment on the pleadings as to the two state law contract claims on July 23, 2019 (doc. 15). The plaintiff filed a response in opposition on August 6, 2019 (doc. 16), and the defendant filed a reply on August 13, 2019 (doc. 19).

         ALLEGATIONS

         The plaintiff, who is an African American female, was employed as a Human Resources Manager in the defendant's McCormick, South Carolina facility from December 2013 until her employment was terminated on January 7, 2019 (doc. 1, compl. ¶¶ 5-8). She alleges that she “made protected complaints internally about the continuing bullying and racially provocative behavior of Area Manager James Tracy Smith” (id. ¶ 12). The plaintiff asserts that Smith was permitted to continue exhibiting racial and religious animus toward her, that unlawful discrimination by Smith was done in retaliation against her for having previously reported Smith's conduct, and that Smith issued her a lower performance review in 2017 as a means of retaliation and unlawful racial and religious discrimination (id.).[1] She additionally alleges that Plant Manager Paul Tackett “exhibited racial bias” against her (id. ¶¶ 13-14). She alleges that the defendant failed to investigate her protected complaint and failed to remedy the situation (id. ¶¶ 15-16).

         In Counts 1 and 2 of her complaint, the plaintiff alleges that she and the defendant entered into a binding contract whereby the defendant offered her employment; she accepted the offer of employment and agreed to fulfill the duties of her position in exchange for valuable consideration, her salary; and the defendant guaranteed that she would be protected from any violations as mandated by the defendant's Code of Conduct and/or policies and procedures. She further alleges that the defendant maintains a Code of Conduct along with numerous internal policies and procedures relating to employee conduct, fairness, respect for others, reduction in force, and EEO guarantees against harassment or racial discrimination. The plaintiff contends that she participated in protected conduct under the defendant's conduct policy and that her employment was affected adversely for doing so. The plaintiff alleges that the defendant “arbitrarily deprived [her] of a timely performance review in 2017 in violation of [her] employment contract and employee performance review guidelines in an effort to discredit [her] and to justify the racially disparate termination of her from her job, which violated the Code of Conduct along with its other internal policies and procedures.” The plaintiff further alleges that the defendant breached the employment contract

by unlawfully terminating her employment without allowing her redress through the established grievance procedures and in a manner violative of their Code of Conduct and EEO policies to include progressive discipline upon which [she] relied and which alter any allegations of at-will employment, as they serve to create contractual guarantees along with other policies concerning job termination, on the job respect[, ] and upward mobility achieved through timely evaluations.

(Id. ¶¶ 17-34). With regard to Count II, the plaintiff additionally alleges that the defendant's “conduct, by and through its agents, was done in bad faith . . ., ” and the defendant's “failure to honor the employment contract which [she] relied upon was breached. Therefore, Defendant intentionally sought out to fraudulently breach the agreement between the Plaintiff and Defendant” (id. ¶¶ 30, 32).

         APPLICABLE LAW AND ANALYSIS

         Legal Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) provides that “[a]fter the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial-a party may move for judgment on the pleadings.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). A motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) is analyzed under the same standard as a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Burbach Broad. Co. of Del. v. Elkins Radio Corp., 278 F.3d 401, 405-06 (4th Cir. 2002). “The purpose of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is to test the sufficiency of a complaint.” Williams v. Preiss-Wal Pat III, LLC, 17 F.Supp.3d 528, 531 (D.S.C. 2014) (quoting Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 243 (4th Cir. 1999)). Rule 8(a) sets forth a liberal pleading standard, which requires only a" ‘short and plain statement of the claim showing the pleader is entitled to relief,' in order to ‘give the defendant fair notice of what . . . the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). “[T]he facts alleged ‘must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level' and must provide ‘enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Robinson v. American Honda Motor Co., Inc., 551 F.3d 218, 222 (4th Cir. 2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 569). “The plausibility standard is not akin to a probability requirement, but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted). Although the court must accept all of the complaint's factual allegations as true, this tenet “is inapplicable to legal conclusions, ” and “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action [that are] supported by mere conclusory statements do not suffice.” Id. (citation omitted).

         Rule 12(d) states: “If on a motion under Rule 12(b)(6) or 12(c), matters outside the pleadings are presented to and not excluded by the court, the motion must be treated as one for summary judgment under Rule 56. All parties must be given a reasonable opportunity to present all the material that is pertinent to the motion.” However, “[i]n deciding whether a complaint will survive a motion to dismiss, a court evaluates the complaint in its entirety, as well as documents attached or incorporated into the complaint.” E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. v. Kolon Indus., Inc., 637 F.3d 435, 448 (4th Cir. 2011). The court may consider such a document, even if it is not attached to the complaint, if the document “was integral to and explicitly relied on in the complaint, ” and there is no authenticity challenge. Id. (quoting Phillips v. LCI Int'l, Inc., 190 F.3d 609, 618 (4th Cir. 1999)). See also Int'l Ass'n of Machinists & Aerospace Workers v. Haley, 832 F.Supp.2d 612, 622 (D.S.C. 2011) (“In evaluating a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court . . . may also ‘consider documents attached to . . . the motion to dismiss, so long as they are integral to the complaint and authentic.'”) (quoting Sec'y of State for Def. v. Trimble Navigation Ltd., 484 F.3d 700, 705 (4th Cir. 2007)).

         Here, the defendant submitted with its motion the three versions of its Code of Conduct that were in place during the plaintiff's employment (see docs. 15-1, 15-2, 15-3). Because the complaint specifically references the Code of Conduct and the plaintiff has made no authenticity challenge, it is appropriate for the court to consider these exhibits in considering the defendant's Rule 12(c) motion without converting the motion to a motion for summary judgment (see doc. 16 at 2) (plaintiff's acknowledgment that the court may consider the exhibits).

         Count 1 - Breach of Contract

         Under South Carolina law, “there is a presumption of at-will employment, ” which means that at any time, and for any or no reason at all, either the employer or the employee can sever the employment relationship. Prescott v. Farmers Tel. Co-op., Inc., 516 S.E.2d 923, 927 n.8 (S.C. 1999). “Of course, an employer and employee may choose to contractually alter the general rule of employment at-will and restrict their freedom to discharge without cause or to resign with impunity.” Id. at 925 (citation omitted). Because employment is presumed to be at-will, in order to survive a motion to dismiss on a claim for breach of contract of employment, “a plaintiff must plead sufficient factual allegations to establish the existence of an employment contract beyond the at-will relationship.” Weaver v. John Lucas Tree Expert Co., C. A. No. 2:13-cv-01698-PMD, 2013 WL 5587854, at *4 (D.S.C. Oct. 10, 2013) (citation and internal quotations marks omitted). In order to alter an ...


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