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Slawson v. Palmetto Heights Management LLC

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

September 30, 2019

Tiffany Slawson, 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, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court upon Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 42). 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. 42) be denied.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was hired as a front desk clerk at the Airport Inn in North Charleston in September 2013. (Dkt. No. 42-2 at 20:23-22:4; Dkt. No. 1-1 at 5.) 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. 46 at 2; see also Dkt. No. 42-3 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. 42-1 at 2; Dkt. No. 42-2 at 26:3-29:10.)

         Less than two months after Plaintiff was hired at the Airport Inn, Shah promoted her to the position of General Manager. (Dkt. No. 42-2 at 27:15-17, 44:6-19; Dkt. No. 46 at 2.) During the course of her employment at the Airport Inn, Plaintiff contends that she and other female employees were “regularly subjected to vulgar, unwelcome comments of a sexual nature” by Shah. (Dkt. No. 46 at 2; Dkt. No. 1-1 at 6.) Specifically, Plaintiff claims that Shah told her on at least five occasions that her breasts “were large” and that she “needed to show them off” when she was out marketing to potential clients (Dkt. No. 46 at 2; Dkt. No. 46-4 at 68:21-69:1; Dkt. No. 46-5 at 73:4-13); pressured Plaintiff to “sell herself” by wearing tighter clothing and revealing her breasts (Dkt. No. 1-1 at 6; Dkt. No. 46 at 2-3; Dkt. No. 46-5 at 72:25-73:3; Dkt. No. 42-2 at 83:3-7); physically pulled Plaintiff's blouse down on one occasion and told her that she needed expose more cleavage when interacting with clients (Dkt. No. 46 at 3; Dkt. No. 46-5 at 72:20-73:3; Dkt. No. 46-7 at 84:14-20; Dkt. No. 42-2 at 83:3-7); told Plaintiff that she had a “nice ass” and “large titties, ” (Dkt. No. 1-1 at 6; Dkt. No. 46-8 at 89:4-15); asked Plaintiff if her nipples were pierced or if she just had big nipples (Dkt. No. 46 at 3; 46-6 at 117:3-16); told Plaintiff on at least three occasions that his two favorite things in life are “money and good pussy, ” (Dkt. No. 46 at 3; Dkt. No. 46-8 at 89:14-17; Dkt. No. 1-1 at 6); grabbed his genitals in front of Plaintiff and stated, “it's large, ” (Dkt. No. 46-2 at 92:15-93:2; Dkt. No. 46-3 at 50:2-18); made offensive, sexual remarks to other female employees in Plaintiff's presence, including telling a particular female employee that she looked like she was “for sale, ” and commenting on multiple employees' breasts and buttocks (Dkt. No. 46-23 at 99:7-100:7; Dkt. No. 46-8 at 89:4-15; Dkt. No. 46-24 at 64:4-12); and repeatedly told Plaintiff and other female employees that women know nothing until a man teaches them (Dkt. No. 1-1 at 6; Dkt. No. 46-9 at 48:5-15; Dkt. No. 42-2 at 53:22-55:14).

         Plaintiff found Shah's gestures and comments to be offensive, inappropriate and unwelcome, and testified that he made her feel so inferior and uncomfortable that she could hardly be in the same room with him. (Dkt. No. 46-13 at 198:16-199:18; Dkt. No. 46-7 at 84:8-13.) As General Manager, Plaintiff claims that she received similar complaints from other women about Shah's conduct and witnessed numerous interactions in which Shah plainly offended female employees in the workplace. (Dkt. No. 46-1 at 96:13-21; 46-14 at 135:1-136:7; Dkt. No. 46-24 at 60:8-62:20, 63:14-64:12; Dkt. No. 42-2 at 53:22-55:24, 91:14-92:7, 130:3-7.) Plaintiff claims that she confronted Shah about his conduct and repeatedly asked that he stop making inappropriate comments to her and the other female employees; according to Plaintiff, Shah simply responded that, “he has money, he can do what he likes.” (Dkt. No. 46-13 at 199:25-200:6; 42-2 at 55:25- 56:10.)

         Plaintiff claims that she complained about Shah's ongoing conduct to Regional Manager Thomas Slawson (“Mr. Slawson”)[1] and asked that he intervene approximately twenty times. (Dkt. No. 46 at 3; Dkt. No. 46-12 at 118:13-22.) Although Mr. Slawson assured Plaintiff that he spoke to Shah about his offensive behavior, Plaintiff claims that the inappropriate sexual comments continued for the remainder of her employment at the Airport Inn.[2] (Dkt. No. 46-13 at 200:7-10.) Indeed, Plaintiff claims that she became so uncomfortable that she had to ask Shelton Black (“Mr. Black”), a maintenance employee at the Airport Inn, to stand near her at the front desk every time Shah came to the hotel, which was approximately three to four times each week.[3] (Dkt. No. 46-13 at 198:16-19; Dkt. No. 42-2 at 117:19-118:8; Dkt. No. 46-1 at 96:2-12.)

         By late February 2014, Plaintiff claims that Shah's offensive behavior “was getting worse.” (Dkt. No. 42-2 at 86:5-11.) Plaintiff reached out to the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission (“SCHAC”) with the hope that “somebody else stepping in and speaking to [Shah]” may encourage him to stop harassing the female employees. (Id. at 78:14-79:5, 156:8-10.) Around this same time, Plaintiff claims that she convened a meeting at the Airport Inn with other female employees to discuss Shah's treatment of women in the workplace and possible recourse. (Id. at 130:3-7; Dkt. No. 46-14 at 134:22-136:14.) In selecting invitees, Plaintiff reached out to those female employees at the Airport Inn who had complained to her about Shah's behavior, including, among others, Shyan Barnett (“Barnett”), Lillian Pair (“Pair”), and Aundrea Kinloch (“Kinloch”), as well as Clarion employee Penny Sambrano (“Sambrano”). (Dkt. No. 46-14 at 134:22-136:14.) During the meeting, Plaintiff claims that she recorded her coworkers' accounts of Shah's harassment in a document stored on a hotel computer. (Dkt. No. 42-2 at 45:7-46:10.)

         On or around March 2, 2014, approximately two days after holding the sexual harassment meeting, Plaintiff claims that her employment at the Airport Inn was terminated at Shah's request. (Id. at 145:15-146:16, 148:15-23.) Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that Shah directed Kinloch to call Plaintiff and inform her that she was no longer General Manager of the Airport Inn. (Id.) Following Kinloch's call, Plaintiff claims that she made several attempts to discuss her termination with Shah, but that he avoided her and eventually ordered that she stay off his hotel properties. (Id. at 153:13- 154:14.)

         On or around June 2, 2014, Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination (“Charge”) with SCHAC and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) alleging claims of sex discrimination and retaliation. (Dkt. No. 42-6.) Plaintiff provided the following narrative in support of her claims:

I was sexually harassed from on or about November 19, 2013 through March 2, 2014. I was subjected to unwelcome sexual comments by the Owner, Kamlesh Shah (male) and comments about other employees (female). I was also told that a woman knows nothing until a man has taught her. As the general manager, I asked Mr. Shah not to talk to the female employees or me in that manner. I reported the sexual harassment to the Regional Manager, Thomas Slawson. Mr. Slawson addressed the issues with Mr. Shah but he ignored the concerns and the comments continued.
I was discharged on or about Mach 2, 2014 [sic]. The reason given was I did not come in on my schedule [sic] day off. I contend I was terminated in retaliation for reporting the sexual harassment.
I therefore believe I was discriminated against because of my sex (female/sexual harassment) and in retaliation for my opposition to employment practices declared unlawful by the South Carolina Human Affairs Law, as amended, and Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 as amended.

(Id.)

         On August 30, 2017, the EEOC issued its determination on the merits of Plaintiff's Charge and found that while the evidence presented was insufficient to establish retaliation “with regards to being discharged in violation of Title VII, ” it was sufficient to show that Plaintiff “was subjected to severe and pervasive unwelcome sexual comments by [Shah].” (Dkt. No. 46-18 at 3.) 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. 42.) Plaintiff filed her Response in Opposition to Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment on April 24, 2019, (Dkt. No. 46), and Defendants filed their Reply on May 13, 2019, (Dkt. No. 51).

         In addition to the instant action, two now former employees of Shah-Barnett and Sambrano-have filed companion cases alleging similar claims of sexual harassment and retaliation in violation of Title VII against those same Defendants named in Plaintiff's Complaint. See Barnett v. Palmetto Heights Management LLC et al, No. 2:18-CV-00204-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. 25.)

         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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