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Holmes v. Town of Clover

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Rock Hill Division

September 10, 2019

Gregory B. Holmes, Plaintiff,
v.
Town of Clover and Donnie Grice, Defendants.

          ORDER AND OPINION

         Plaintiff Gregory B. Holmes filed this action against his former employer, Defendant Town of Clover (“Clover”), alleging that he was subjected to discrimination because of his race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (ECF No. 15 at 4 ¶ 30-5 ¶ 37.) Additionally, Holmes alleges a claim against Clover pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of the First Amendment right to free speech; and state law claims against Clover for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy; against Clover and Defendant Donnie Grice (individually, “Grice, ” and together with Clover, “Defendants”) for defamation, and against Grice for tortious interference with contract. (ECF No. 1 at 5 ¶ 38-9 ¶ 69.)

         This matter is before the court on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (ECF No. 32.) In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Rule 73.02(B)(2)(g) D.S.C., the matter was referred to the United States Magistrate Judge for pretrial handling. On June 25, 2019, the Magistrate Judge issued a Report and Recommendation in which she recommended that the court grant Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment as to all of Holmes' claims. (ECF No. 38 at 23.) Holmes filed objections to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation, which are presently before the court. (ECF No. 40.) For the reasons set forth below, the court ACCEPTS IN PART the Magistrate Judge's recommendation; GRANTS Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment only as to Holmes' claims for Title VII race discrimination, violation of the First Amendment right to free speech, and defamation; and REMANDS Holmes' claims of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy and tortious interference with contract to the York County Court of Common Pleas for further proceedings.

         I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND TO PENDING MOTION

         The facts of this matter are discussed in the Report and Recommendation. (See ECF No. 38 at 2-7.) The court concludes, upon its own careful review of the record, that the Magistrate Judge's factual summation is accurate and incorporates it by reference. The court will only reference herein additional facts viewed in the light most favorable to Holmes that are pertinent to the analysis of his claims.

         Holmes is an African-American male. (ECF No. 36-6 at 2 ¶ 4.) Clover is a town of five thousand (5, 000) residents located in northwestern York County, South Carolina.[1] Clover, SC, https://www.visityorkcounty.com/plan/our-cities/clover/ (last visited Sept. 5, 2019). Grice was mayor of Clover from approximately 2001 to 2005 and 2007 to 2017. (ECF No. 36-5 at 3:18-24.)

         Holmes began his employment with Clover on January 9, 2001 as a program coordinator and was later promoted to the position of director of the recreation department on November 15, 2004. (ECF Nos. 36-2 at 2, 36-6 at 2 ¶ 3, 36-7 at 2.) In Clover, the recreation department oversees youth and adult sports to include the hiring of officials and the maintenance of athletic fields. (ECF No. 32-2 at 4:15-6:5.) As director, Holmes supervised approximately ten (10) other recreation department employees. (Id. at 6:6-8.) On July 25, 2005, Holmes was evaluated and given an overall performance rating of excellent. (ECF No. 36-2 at 2 (“Greg has put forth tremendous efforts toward improving our sports programming and hope[s] to continue the improvements.”).)

         In April 2006, Allison Harvey, a white female, became the town administrator and Holmes' supervisor. (ECF Nos. 36-4 at 4:9-11, 36-6 at 2 ¶ 5, 36-7 at 2.) After Harvey became his supervisor, Holmes “never received performance evaluations” and “never received any written discipline during [][his] tenure other than the written discipline underlying [][his] termination.” (ECF Nos. 32-2 at 3:2-6, 36-6 at 2 ¶ 8.) However, in 2009, Harvey did counsel Holmes in 2009 to not conduct tax preparation services in his office. (ECF No. 32-2 at 14:4-19.)

         Holmes asserts that he experienced race discrimination in his job starting on or about April 20, 2015. Specifically, Holmes states:

Mayor Grice coached little league baseball for a team that participated in the Defendant Town's recreation department league. Mayor Grice became upset when a player on his team was ejected for running through the catcher at a game on April 20. I was not present at this game. Instead of following proper channels, the Mayor went directly to my boss Ms. Harvey about this particular call, and I was called into a meeting with the two of them. At that meeting I informed Mayor Grice that the Umpire made a judgment call which was consistent with little league rules. Mayor Grice retorted that “this is not a judgment call . . . a judgment call is what [Michael Slager] did in North Charleston.” Michael Slager is the white North Charleston police officer who had just (at the time the comment was made) gunned down a black arrestee, Walter Scott, in the back following a traffic stop. I found this commentary to be extremely inappropriate and racially offensive.

(ECF No. 36-6 at 2 ¶ 10.) Because of Grice's alleged dissatisfaction with the results of the April 20, 2015 meeting, Holmes contends that Grice initiated the following incidents:

• In July 2015, he instructed Harvey to direct Holmes “to hold townhall style meetings twice during the 2015 baseball season for he and other coaches to express their concerns about the recreation department and little league baseball.” (ECF No. 36 at 5 (referencing ECF No. 36-8 at 3).)
• In July 2015, he directed Harvey “to provide him the name of everyone [][Holmes]'s Department sent an email to about the [townhall] meeting.” (ECF No. 36 at 5-6 (referencing ECF No. 36-8 at 3).)
• He accused Holmes of “‘calling [his] son a liar' when Grice formally protested a call by an umpire to eject his son for slinging or flicking his baseball bat after hitting a double.” (ECF No. 36 at 6 (referencing ECF No. 36-5 at 16:8-17:25).)
• On May 21, 2015, in response to his wife's Facebook statement that “I now know the problem with youth sports: ADULTS!!!, ” he indirectly attacked Holmes' “skills as a supervisor in a comment reading: ‘In most cases it is adults with big egos and unorganized adults supervising them.'” (ECF No. 36 at 6 (quoting ECF No. 36-9 at 2).)

         Subsequent to the aforementioned events, Holmes asserts that in early 2016, Grice initiated steps that would ultimately lead to the termination of Holmes' employment. After a specific town council meeting, Grice commented to Councilmen Daniel Todd Blanton, Jay Dover, and Wes Spurrier that Holmes has “got to go.” (ECF No. 36-10 at 4:1. See generally Id. at 3:9-6:3.) Then, during a meeting between Grice and Harvey on January 29, 2016, Spurrier appeared and presented information that “he believed ([he] had been told) [] Holmes was doing taxes for others using computers and office space during normal office hours” . . . [and] “Wes suggested getting [IT employee] Dee Wise to look at computer activity.” (ECF No. 36-11 at 2.) Thereafter, in response to Harvey's request, Wise conducted a search of Holmes' desktop computer for the time period starting on February 11, 2016, and ending on March 4, 2016, and she concluded that the computer contained numerous interactions with websites such as taxact.com, turbotax, onlinetaxes.yorkcounty.com, and taxactonline.com. (ECF No. 32-7 at 1 ¶ 4-2 ¶ 6.)

         On March 11, 2016, Harvey made the decision to terminate Holmes observing in the Record of Disciplinary Action as follows:

Greg has been conducting a private tax preparation business at his office at the Community Center and during office hours. He has seen “customers” and used Town equipment (computer) to do the work. This is a violation of the Town's personnel policy regarding Secondary Employment. Greg was warned once before about such activity. Another contributory factor to this termination is his insubordinate behavior and poor judgement in making inappropriate and disparaging comments about Mayor Grice to Recreation Department staff which has created an extremely tense work environment for staff.

(ECF No. 36-12 at 2.) Harvey replaced Holmes with Joe Ross, a white male. (ECF No. 32-4 at 13:17-14:2.)

         As a result of the aforementioned, Holmes filed an action against Clover on October 12, 2017, in the Court of Common Pleas for York County (South Carolina) alleging claims for race discrimination, violation of civil rights, and defamation. (ECF No. 1-1 at 8 ¶ 29-10 ¶ 55.) After removing the matter to this court on November 27, 2017 (ECF No. 1), Clover answered the Complaint on November 29, 2017, denying its allegations. (ECF No. 4.) Thereafter, Holmes was granted leave by the court and filed an Amended Complaint (ECF No. 15) on February 28, 2018, and a Second Amended Complaint (ECF No. 26) on June 4, 2018, which Defendants answered denying their allegations. (ECF Nos. 17, 27.) In both the Amended Complaint and the Second Amended Complaint, Holmes alleged claims of race discrimination, violation of his First Amendment rights, wrongful discharge, and defamation against Clover and claims of defamation and tortious interference with contract against Grice. (See ECF Nos. 15, 26.) On February 15, 2019, Defendants filed their Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 32.) Holmes filed opposition to the Motion for Summary Judgment on March 15, 2019, to which Defendants filed a Reply to Plaintiff's Response to the Motion for Summary Judgment on March 22, 2019. (ECF Nos. 36, 37.)

         In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Local Civil Rule 73.02 D.S.C., the Magistrate Judge issued her Report and Recommendation on June 25, 2019, recommending that Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment be granted as to all of Holmes' claims. (ECF No. 38.) On July 9, 2019, Holmes filed objections to the Report and Recommendation, specifically asserting that the Magistrate Judge erred in the following ways:

1. The Magistrate, on race discrimination, erred in finding the record conclusively revealed another, nondiscriminatory reason for Plaintiff's termination other than the reason suggested by Defendant.
2. The Magistrate should, after recommending summary judgment on Plaintiff's federal claims, have recommended remanding the remainder of this action to state Court.
3. Absent a remand and with respect to wrongful discharge, Plaintiff's termination at the insistence of Defendant Grice violated the statutory weak mayor form of government in the Defendant Town and thereby amounted to an actionable wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.
4. With respect to tortious interference with contract, the Magistrate[']s ruling that Angus, a civil conspiracy holding, would apply to a tortious interference claim, was error.

(ECF No. 40 at 4.)

         The court heard argument from the parties on Holmes' objections at a hearing on September 6, 2019. (ECF No. 49.) The court considers ...


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