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Ray v. International Paper Co.

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

October 15, 2019

Tamika Ray, Plaintiff,
v.
International Paper Company, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Timothy M. Cain United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Tamika Ray (“Ray”) brought this action asserting sexual harassment and retaliation claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended (“Title VII”). (ECF No. 1). Defendant International Paper Company (“International Paper”) filed a motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 32), which the court granted (ECF No. 48). On appeal, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment and remanded this action. (ECF No. 54). Ray v. Int'l Paper Co., 909 F.3d 661 (4th Cir. 2018). The Fourth Circuit found that questions of material fact existed with respect to whether the reduction in Ray's voluntary overtime hours was an adverse action. The court declined to address whether International Paper had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse action and whether Ray could prove any such reason was pretextual because the district court had not reached those issues. Id. at 671 n.5. Based on this footnote, the undersigned recommitted this action to the magistrate judge for her to address “whether [International Paper] had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse action and whether [Plaintiff] could prove that any reason offered by International Paper was merely pretextual.” (ECF No. 54 at 17 n.5). The magistrate thereafter filed a Report and Recommendation (“Report”), in which she recommends that the court find that disputed issues of material facts exist. (ECF No. 68). Both parties filed objections (ECF Nos. 70, 71), and Ray filed a reply (ECF No. 73). Accordingly, this matter is ripe for review.

         I. Applicable Law

         The magistrate judge's recommendation has no presumptive weight, and the responsibility for making a final determination remains with the United States District Court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270 (1976). The court is charged with making a de novo determination of those portions of the Report to which specific objection is made. The court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation made by the magistrate judge or recommit the matter with instructions. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The failure to file specific objections to the Report not only waives the parties' appellate rights in this matter, but also relieves the district court of any obligation to conduct a de novo review of the issues presented. See Wells v. Shriners Hosp., 109 F.3d 198, 199-200 (4th Cir.1997); Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 148-153 (1985). The Supreme Court has noted that objections filed in the district court help narrow the issues that the district judge is to consider and issues on appeal. Thomas, 474 U.S. at 147. “Congress would not have wanted district judges to devote time to reviewing magistrate's reports except to the extent that such review is requested by the parties or otherwise necessitated by Article III of the Constitution.” Id. at 153.

         II. Discussion

         Title VII prohibits employers from retaliating against an employee for reporting discrimination or harassment. Under the burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), to establish a prima facie case of retaliation under Title VII, a plaintiff must prove that (1) she engaged in a protected activity; (2) her employer took an adverse employment action against her; and (3) there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action. See Foster v. Univ. of Maryland-Eastern Shore, 787 F.3d 243, 250 (4th Cir. 2015). If the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the burden then shifts to the employer to establish a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for the adverse action. See Price v. Thompson, 380 F.3d 209, 212 (4th Cir. 2004). If the employer sets forth a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for the action, the plaintiff then bears the burden of showing the employer's proffered reason is pretextual or her claim will fail. Id.

         In the court's prior order granting summary judgment to International Paper, the undersigned addressed two adverse actions that Ray alleged were taken in retaliation for her reporting the harassment: 1) a reduction in her overtime; and 2) the staring and jamming of Ray's production line by her alleged harasser and supervisor, Johnnie McDowell. (ECF No. 48 at 14, 16 n.9). The court determined that International Paper was entitled to summary judgment because neither of these were adverse actions. Id. at 15-16. Ray appealed raising both adverse actions as separate appellate issues in her brief and at oral argument. (ECF No. 58-1 at 15). In its decision, the Fourth Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment finding that the reduction in overtime was an adverse action. Ray, 909 F.3d at 671. Despite it being raised as an issue on appeal, the Fourth Circuit did not address the other alleged retaliatory adverse action -the staring and jamming of Ray's production line.

         In response to the court's order recommitting this matter to the magistrate judge, International Paper took the position that the undersigned's prior ruling that the staring and jamming of Ray's lines was not an adverse action was the law of the case. (ECF No. 58 at 13). International Paper noted that Ray had briefed both alleged adverse actions in its appeal but that the Fourth Circuit had only reversed on the reduction in overtime. Id. Moreover International Paper contends the undersigned's prior order in regard to this issue was correct because that alleged retaliation did not produce an injury or harm. Id. at 14 (citing Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 68 (2006)). Out of an abundance of caution, however, International Paper addressed whether it could articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the both alleged retaliatory adverse actions and whether Ray could establish pretext. (ECF No. 58 at 16-18).

         In her response to the courts' order recommitting this matter to the magistrate judge, Ray argues that both alleged adverse actions should be viewed together in addressing whether International Paper had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse actions. (ECF No. 59 at 8). Ray contends that the undersigned's prior ruling as to the staring and jamming of the production lines was based on bad law, Boone v. Goldin, 178 F.3d 253 (4th Cir. 1999). Ray argues that the law-of-the-case doctrine is inapplicable here because Boone is no longer good law, and, thus, the undersigned should not continue to apply Boone. Id. at 17 (citing Epstein v. World Acceptance Corp., 203 F.Supp.3d 655, 664 (D.S.C. 2016) (holding that the law of the case doctrine should be disregarded where it is clear that the cases law relied upon is no longer good law and the prior decision is erroneous). Further, Ray contends that International Paper's argument that such harassment cannot constitute an adverse employment action because it did not cause Ray any harm or injury “has never been the standard, and it is patently inconsistent with Burlington Northern.” (ECF No. 59 at 18). Ray also argues that International Paper improperly addresses the sexual harassment claim, which she contends is not an issue here. Id. at 15.

         In its reply to Ray's response, International Paper argues that, even though Ray raised both adverse actions as separate issues on appeal, the Fourth Circuit addressed only the reduction in overtime and did not reverse on the alleged adverse action of starring and jamming the line. (ECF No. 62 at 1-2). International Paper, therefore, argues that the law of the case is that Ray failed to establish a claim of retaliation based on the jamming and staring. Id. at 2.

         Additionally, International Paper points out that the Fourth Circuit also cited Boone in its opinion for the proposition that “an actionable adverse employment action is one in which an employee suffers a ‘discharge, demotion, decrease in pay or benefits, loss of job title or supervisory responsibility, or reduced opportunities for promotion'” Ray, 909 F.3d at 670 (quoting Boone, 178 F.3d at 255). (ECF No. 62 at 2).

         In her Report, the magistrate judge noted that the order recommitting the matter to her only addressed the reduction of overtime as an adverse action. (ECF No. 68 at 2 n.1). She then stated that neither the Fourth Circuit nor the undersigned had addressed the other alleged adverse actions - the staring and the jamming of the lines. Id. The court respectfully disagrees. In the prior order granting summary judgment to International Paper, the court stated the following:

In her objections, Plaintiff contends that McDowell singled her out and picked on her after she complained in September 2014, and this would satisfy any temporal proximity issues. However, this alleged conduct would not be an adverse employment action. An adverse employment action is a discriminatory act which adversely affects the terms, conditions, or benefits of the plaintiff's employment and focuses “on whether there has been discrimination in such ultimate decisions as hiring, granting leave, discharging, promoting, and compensation.” Boone v. Goldin, 178 F.3d 253, 255-56 (4th Cir. 1999). See also Ellerth, 524 U.S. at 761. An “[a]ction that merely causes an employee irritation or inconvenience, but does not affect a term, condition, or benefit of her employment, is not an adverse employment action.” Spriggs v. Public Serv. Comm'n. of Md., 197 F.Supp.2d 388, 393 (D. Md. 2002).

(ECF No. 48 at 16 n.9). The court ruled that McDowell's alleged picking on Ray, which included the staring and line-jamming, was not an adverse action. Moreover, Ray clearly agrees that the court ruled on this issue because she argued on appeal that the undersigned erred in holding that the ...


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