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Neloms v. Charleston County School District

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

September 16, 2019

AMY NELOMS, Plaintiff,



         This matter is before the court on United States Magistrate Judge Mary Gordon Baker's report and recommendation (“R&R”) that the court grant defendant Charleston County School District's (“CCSD”) motion for summary judgment, ECF No. 21. For the reasons set forth below, the court adopts the R&R and grants CCSD's motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The R&R ably recites the salient facts of this case, and it is unnecessary to review the details of the complaint, filings, depositions, and exhibits that constitute the factual record. The court notes the following relevant facts. Plaintiff Amy Neloms (“Neloms”) began working for CCSD as a guidance counselor in 2002. In August 2013, Neloms was promoted to Director of Guidance and Counseling Services K-12 for the entire school district. As Director of Guidance, she immediately became responsible for hiring school counselors, leading student programs, and enhancing the guidance program. She was further tasked with numerous responsibilities including managing the multimillion-dollar federal “Gear Up” grant, undertaking sole responsibility for managing the District's Crisis Intervention Plan and Team, answering complaints from the District's Bully Prevention Hotline, managing and compiling content for the District's “Program of Studies” database, activating all of CCSD's high school courses in a program called “Power School”, administering a scholarship program for the District, serving as a test coordinator for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, coordinating the District's child sexual assault training, overseeing bus driver training sessions on bullying prevention, managing any incoming petitions for high school diplomas, creating a performance evaluation system for school counselors, and overseeing District-wide implementation of a software system called “Naviance.” ECF No. 21 at 2-3. Neloms claims she was not given sufficient training to perform these duties and asked for help throughout the fall of 2015, especially with regard to the administration and audit of the Gear Up grant. In response to this, CCSD hired Chameeka Smith (“Smith”) in September 2015 to aid in the internal audit of the grant.

         On September 30, 2015, the Post & Courier published an article revealing that CCSD faced an $18 million shortfall. Then, on November 25, 2015, the Post & Courier published a follow-up article identifying specific instances of overspending, including $841, 000 in the Guidance Department. The article did not name Neloms as being involved in the shortcoming, but Neloms felt that it implicated her as the current Director of Guidance, despite the fact that Neloms was not the Director of Guidance at the time of the overspending. As a result, she asked the District Superintendent and Legal Department to contact the Post & Courier to clarify the article. They declined to do so.

         Smith resigned as project manager of the Gear Up grant in July 2016. The effect of Smith's resignation on Neloms's workload and responsibilities caused Neloms a great deal of stress such that she broke down in tears in a meeting with her supervisor, Michelle English-Watson (“English-Watson”), and the Gear Up grant auditors. On August 5, 2016, English-Watson hired Cindy Smalls (“Smalls”) as a temporary employee to assist in the organization of the Gear Up audit documents; her role ended in January 2017. In September 2016, CCSD hired Donna Newton (“Newton”) as Neloms's secretary. Then in October 2016, Dennis Muhammed (“Muhammed”) was hired to permanently replace Smith as the project manager for the Gear Up grant.

         During December 2016 and January 2017, Neloms experienced significant stress with regard to her job such that on February 16, 2017, Neloms's physician submitted forms indicating that Neloms was suffering from anxiety, sadness, and decreased motivation and needed to take two weeks of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). In response, English-Watson sent Neloms an email affirming the FMLA leave but requesting that Neloms put together a list of current projects for the purpose of making sure the office did not fall behind on its assignments. Neloms replied, providing the list. Originally, Neloms's fulltime FMLA leave was scheduled until February 27, 2017, but it was later extended to last until March 28, 2017. When her FMLA leave expired, Neloms returned to work with a modified, intermittent leave schedule such that she would work four hours per day, as opposed to eight hours per day.

         By this time, the internal audit of the Gear Up grant was complete and the code-of-conduct work was reassigned to the Curriculum Instructions Department. However, Neloms claims that she had to work more than four hours a day because she was still expected to complete the same amount of work that she previously had. In other words, while her number of hours decreased, her workload did not. Though Neloms claims she had to sometimes work at home-exceeding her four-hour limit-to keep up with certain responsibilities, she also acknowledges that no one directed her to do this. Neloms remained overwhelmed by her number of responsibilities and asked English-Watson to reassign them to other departments or hire her more staff. She also asked that some of her core job duties be temporarily reassigned to accommodate the four-hour work day. English-Watson explained to Neloms that if something is in Neloms's job description, then Nelom had to do it. Because their dialogue eventually broke down, both parties agreed that Neloms should contact Employee Relations. From April 18, 2017 onwards, Neloms was in conversation with Employee Relations to clarify her job responsibilities. Neloms met with members of the Employee Relations department on two separate occasions: on or around April 26, 2017 and on May 8, 2017. Then on May 16, 2017, Neloms requested and was approved for full time FMLA leave, and on June 6, 2017, Neloms submitted a resignation letter while still on FMLA leave. Her resignation was accepted shortly thereafter and she was allowed to remain on FMLA leave until June 30, 2017.

         Neloms filed suit in the Court of Common Pleas for the Ninth Judicial Circuit in the county of Charleston, South Carolina on December 8, 2017. She brought causes of action for: (1) denial of reasonable accommodations pursuant to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 705; (2) interference/retaliation in violation of the FMLA; and (3) defamation by innuendo. CCSD removed the complaint to federal court on February 5, 2018 and filed a motion for summary judgment on January 4, 2019, ECF No. 18. Neloms responded to the motion on January 17, 2019, ECF No. 19, and CCSD replied on January 22, 2019, ECF No. 20. On June 19, 2019, Magistrate Judge Baker issued an R&R recommending that CCSD's motion be granted. ECF No. 21. Neloms filed objections to the R&R on July 3, 2019, ECF No. 22, and CCSD replied on July 8, 2019, ECF No. 23.

         II. STANDARD

         A. R&R

         The magistrate judge makes only a recommendation to the court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270 (1976). The recommendation carries no presumptive weight, and the responsibility to make a final determination remains with the court. Id. at 270- 71. The court may “accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge . . . or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The court is charged with making a de novo determination of any portion of the R&R to which a specific objection is made. Id.

         B. Summary Judgment

         Summary judgment is appropriate 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). “Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires that the district court enter judgment against a party who, ‘after adequate time for discovery . . . fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.'” Stone v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 105 F.3d 188, 190 (4th Cir. 1997) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)). Any reasonable inferences are to be drawn in favor of the nonmoving party. See Webster v. U.S. Dep't of Agric., 685 F.3d 411, 421 (4th Cir. 2012). However, to defeat summary judgment, the nonmoving party must identify an error of law or a genuine issue of disputed material fact. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256 (1986); see also Bouchat v. Balt. Ravens Football Club, Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 522 (4th Cir. 2003).

         Although the court must draw all justifiable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, the nonmoving party must rely on more than conclusory allegations, mere speculation, the building of one inference upon another, or the mere existence of a scintilla of evidence. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252; Stone, 105 F.3d at 191. Rather, “a party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment . . . must ‘set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Bouchat, 346 F.3d at 522 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e) (2002) (amended 2010)). If the adverse party fails to provide evidence establishing that the factfinder could reasonably decide in his favor, ...

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