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Barnett v. Palmetto Heights Management, LLC

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

September 30, 2019

Shyan Barnett, Plaintiff,
v.
Palmetto Heights Management, LLC, d/b/a Airport Inn; Archdale Development, LLC; and Kamlesh Shah, individually, Defendants.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          MARY GORDON BAKER JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court upon Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 36). Pursuant to the provisions of Title 28, United States Code, Section 636(b)(1) and Local Rule 73.02(B)(2)(g), D.S.C., all pretrial matters in employment discrimination cases are referred to a United States Magistrate Judge for consideration. For the reasons set forth herein, the undersigned recommends that Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 36) be granted in part and denied in part.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was hired as a front desk clerk at the Airport Inn in North Charleston on December 27, 2013. (Dkt. No. 40 at 3; Dkt. No. 36-3 at 40:21-25.) The Airport Inn is owned and operated by Defendant Palmetto Heights Management, LLC (“Palmetto Heights”), a South Carolina limited liability company owned by Defendant Kamlesh Shah (“Shah”). (Dkt. No. 40 at 3; see also Dkt. No. 36-2 at 26:3-29:10.) Shah is the sole member of Palmetto Heights. (Id.) Additionally, he is the sole owner and member of Defendant Archdale Development, LLC (“Archdale”), which owns and operates a neighboring hotel called the Clarion Inn & Suites (“Clarion”). (Dkt. No. 36-1 at 2; Dkt. No. 36-2 at 26:3-29:10.)

         During the course of her employment at the Airport Inn, Plaintiff contends that she was “subjected to ongoing sexual harassment” by Shah. (Dkt. No. 40 at 3; Dkt. No. 1-1 at 6.) Specifically, Plaintiff claims that Shah told her that her “butt and tits were big, ” (Dkt. No. 36-3 at 45:1-47:13; Dkt. No. 40 at 3; Dkt. No. 1-1 at 6); commented that women's private parts “had to be wet, ” (Dkt. No. 36-3 at 72:3-12); told Plaintiff on several occasions that his two favorite things in life are “money and good pussy, ” (Dkt. No. 40 at 3; Dkt. No. 40-1 at 141:16-142:6; Dkt. No. 1-1 at 6); told Plaintiff, “you better know the two things that Kam likes, ” referring again to money and sex (Dkt. No. 40-1 at 141:16-24; Dkt. No. 1-1 at 6); directed Plaintiff to flirt with customers and “sell” herself, including leaning over the counter to reveal her breasts (Dkt. No. 40-1 at 141:2- 12; Dkt. No. 40 at 3; Dkt. No. 1-1 at 6); grazed his body against Plaintiff's backside[1] (Dkt. No. 36-3 at 55:9-57:16, 75:1-76:5); and on more occasions “than [Plaintiff] could count, ” stated that women are beneath men and know nothing until a man teaches them, and directed Plaintiff to speak only when spoken to (id. at 66:16-24, 68:12-24; Dkt. No. 40 at 3; Dkt. No. 1-1 at 6).[2]Moreover, on or around February 2, 2014, Shah allegedly asked the Airport Inn's General Manager Tiffany Slawson (“Ms. Slawson”) to terminate Plaintiff's employment because Plaintiff was “ugly.” (Dkt. No. 40 at 4; Dkt. No. 40-5 at 5.) Ms. Slawson refused. (Dkt. No. 40-5 at 5.)

         Plaintiff claims that Shah's conduct made her feel uncomfortable, threatened and intimidated, and despite repeatedly asking him to stop, Shah continued to make inappropriate comments to Plaintiff. (Dkt. No. 40-1 at 143:14-144:7.) Plaintiff complained about Shah's ongoing conduct to her supervisor, Vivian Faulk (“Faulk”), General Manager Ms. Slawson, and Regional Manager Thomas Slawson (“Mr. Slawson”).[3] (Dkt. No. 36-3 at 51:13-52:12, 54:16- 55:5, 79:19-80:6; Dkt. No. 1-1 at 6.) Based on Plaintiff's complaints and her own experiences with Shah, Ms. Slawson requested on several occasions that Shah cease his inappropriate behavior and comments towards the female employees. (Dkt. No. 1-1 at 6; Dkt. No. 40 at 4; Dkt. No. 40-5 at 5; Dkt. No. 40-6 at 94:1-6.)

         In late February/early March 2014, Plaintiff claims that she, Ms. Slawson, and several other female employees held a meeting at the Airport Inn to discuss their individual experiences with Shah's harassment and possible recourse for his behavior. (Dkt. No. 40 at 4-5; Dkt. No. 40-1 at 86:14-87:18; Dkt. No. 1-1 at 6.) Shortly after this meeting, on or around March 8, 2014, Plaintiff's employment was terminated for allegedly mishandling guestrooms and stealing money from the Airport Inn. (Dkt. No. 40-2 at 53:20-54:10; Dkt. No. 40-1 at 105:2-106:25; Dkt. No. 40-8.) Plaintiff contends, however, that she has “never stolen a dime from [Shah's] business, ” (Dkt. No. 40-1 at 106:21-22), and, in actuality, her employment was terminated in retaliation for participating in the meeting regarding Shah's inappropriate behavior towards female employees. (Dkt. No. 40 at 4-5; Dkt. No. 40-1 at 102:17-103:7; Dkt. No. 1-1 at 6; Dkt. No. 40-2 at 52:1-4.) Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination (“Charge”) with the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission (“SCHAC”) and Equal Employment Opportunity Committee (“EEOC”) on or around June 20, 2014, alleging claims of sex and age discrimination. (Dkt. No. 40-3.) Notably, Plaintiff did not allege a claim of retaliation in her Charge. (Id.) Plaintiff provided the following narrative in support of her discrimination claims:

I was denied equal wages from on or about December 27, 2013 through April 15, 2014 by the Owner Kam Shah. I am aware of a younger employee that was paid more doing the same job.
I was subjected to sexual harassment from on or about March 30, 2014 through April 15, 2014.[4] I was subjected to unwelcome sexual comments by Mr. Shah. I reported the sexual harassment to upper management but no corrective actions were taken.
I was constructively discharged on or about April 15, 2014. Because of the continuous discriminatory treatment, I resigned as a reasonable person would have under these circumstances.
I therefore believe I was discriminated against because of my age (47) and sex (female/sexual harassment), in violation of the South Carolina Human Affairs Law, as amended, Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended.

(Id. at 1.)

         On August 30, 2017, the EEOC issued its determination on the merits of Plaintiff's Charge (“Final Determination”) and found that while the evidence presented was insufficient to establish wage disparity, it was sufficient to show that Plaintiff “was subjected to severe and pervasive unwelcome sexual comments by [Shah].” (Dkt. No. 40-7.) The EEOC therefore determined that there was “reasonable cause to conclude that [Plaintiff] was discriminated against because of sex (female/sexual harassment), in violation of Title VII.” (Id.)

         After receiving notice of her right to sue, Plaintiff filed this action in the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas, Charleston County, on or around December 27, 2017, (Dkt. No. 1-1), and Defendants removed the case to the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina on January 25, 2018 (Dkt. No. 1). Plaintiff's Complaint alleges two causes of action against Defendants: retaliation and sexual harassment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”). (Dkt. No. 1-1.) On March 29, 2019, Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment seeking dismissal of all of Plaintiff's claims. (Dkt. No. 36.) Plaintiff filed her Response in Opposition to Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment on April 24, 2019, (Dkt. No. 40), and Defendants filed their Reply on May 13, 2019, (Dkt. No. 44).

         In addition to the instant action, two now former employees of Shah-Ms. Slawson and Penny Sambrano (“Sambrano”)-have filed companion cases alleging similar claims of sexual harassment and retaliation against those same Defendants named in Plaintiff's Complaint. See Slawson v. Palmetto Heights Management LLC et al, No. 2:18-CV-00217-RMG-MGB and Sambrano v. Palmetto Heights Management LLC et al, No. 2:18-CV-00216-RMG-MGB. The instant action was consolidated with these companion cases for discovery purposes only. (Dkt. No. 40 at 1 n.1.)

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment “shall” be granted “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “Facts are ‘material' when they might affect the outcome of the case, and a ‘genuine issue' exists when the evidence would allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” The News & Observer Publ'g Co. v. Raleigh-Durham Airport Auth., 597 F.3d 570, 576 (4th Cir. 2010) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, “the nonmoving party's evidence is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in that party's favor.” See Id. (quoting Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 552 (1999)); see also Perini Corp. v. Perini Constr., Inc., 915 F.2d 121, 123-24 (4th Cir. 1990). However, “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.” Dash v. Mayweather, 731 F.3d 303, 311 (4th Cir. 2013).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Retaliation in Violation of Title VII

         Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee because she opposed any unlawful employment practice, or has made a charge or has participated in an investigation. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a). However, before filing an action for retaliation under Title VII, the claimant must first exhaust her administrative remedies by filing an administrative charge of discrimination with the EEOC:

The filing of an administrative charge is not simply a formality to be rushed through so that an individual can quickly file [her] subsequent lawsuit. Rather, Congress intended the exhaustion requirement to serve ...

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