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Dixon v. Boone Hall Farms, Inc.

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

November 19, 2019




         This matter is before the court on United States Magistrate Judge Jacquelyn D. Austin's report and recommendation (“R&R”) that the court deny defendant Boone Hall Farms, Inc.'s (“Boone Hall”) motion for partial summary judgment with respect to plaintiff Kristen Dixon's (“Dixon”) third cause of action for retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”), ECF No. 37. For the reasons discussed below, the court adopts the R&R and denies Boone Hall's motion for summary judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The R&R ably recites the facts, and Boone Hall did not object to the R&R's recitation thereof. Therefore, the court will only briefly summarize material facts as they appear in the R&R for the purpose of aiding an understanding of its legal analysis.

         Beginning in March of 2016, Dixon worked as a server, cashier, and hostess at Boone Hall Farms Café (the “Café”). During her time there, Dixon claims to have been sexually assaulted on four different occasions by her co-worker Ricky Smalls (“Smalls”). Dixon alleges instances of blatant physical sexual abuse as well as threats of continued abuse. Dixon further alleges that although she submitted numerous complaints to her manager, Tim Junkins (“Junkins”), she received only threats to keep quiet and disciplinary action in return. Shortly after the third alleged incident of sexual assault, Dixon claims she sought out Boone Hall's CEO Laura Bowers (“Bowers”) who allegedly brushed off Dixon's concerns, stating that she did not have time for complaints about the working environment at the Café.

         Shortly thereafter, on February 14, 2017, Dixon alleges that Smalls followed her into the Café bathroom, locked the door, and sexually assaulted her by grabbing her breasts and buttocks. Once again, Dixon claims, when she sought out Junkins and Bowers to report the incident the following day, she was met with disinterest by the former and threats of termination by the latter. Two days after the alleged February 14 assault, Dixon received two disciplinary “write-ups” and a weekend-long suspension. When she returned to work the following Monday, Dixon claims, her name was removed from the work schedule, and she was asked to return home until someone from the Café contacted her.

         On February 23, Dixon met with Bowers, Human Resources Manager Abigail Watson (“Watson”), and Boone Hall owner William McRae (“McRae”). During the meeting, Dixon inquired into her employment status several times and was told that her status would not be determined until after an investigation into her accusations was completed. On March 1, Dixon again met with Bowers, Watson, and McRae, where she was told that her accusations had been thoroughly investigated and determined to be unfounded. Accordingly, Dixon was told, Smalls would not face termination or any other disciplinary action. Although it was made clear to Dixon during the March 1 meeting that she had not been fired and would be integrated back into the schedule, Dixon never returned to work at the Café, nor did she further contact her employer regarding work.

         Shortly after Dixon ceased work at the Café, she filed an administrative charge with the Equal Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), which issued a right to sue letter on April 25, 2018. Dixon brought the instant action in the Charleston County Court of Common Pleas on June 26, 2018, asserting three causes of action under Title VII: two for unlawful discrimination and one for retaliation.[1] ECF No. 1-1. Boone Hall removed the case to the district court on August 1, 2018, where it was assigned by local rule to Magistrate Judge Jacquelyn D. Austin. ECF No. 1. On June 14, 2019, Boone Hall filed the instant motion for summary judgment as to Dixon's third cause of action. ECF No. 28. On July 20, 2019, Dixon responded to the motion, ECF No. 33, to which Boone Hall replied, ECF No. 36. On August 18, 2018, Magistrate Judge Austin issued an R&R, recommending that the court deny Boone Hall's motion. ECF No. 37. Boone Hall filed objections to the R&R on September 3, 2019. ECF No. 40. Dixon responded to the objections on September 6, 2019. ECF No. 41. Therefore, the matter is now ripe for the court's review.

         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. However, de novo review is unnecessary when a party makes general and conclusory objections without directing a court's attention to a specific error in the magistrate judge's proposed findings. Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982). In the absence of a specific objection, the court reviews the R&R only for clear error. Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). “A finding is ‘clearly erroneous' when although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” United States v. U.S. Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 395 (1948).

         B. Motion for Summary Judgment

         Summary judgment shall be granted if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show 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(c). “By its very terms, this standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). “Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Id. at 248. “[S]ummary judgment will not lie if the dispute about a material fact is ‘genuine,' that is, if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. “[A]t the summary judgment stage the judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 249. The court should view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all inferences in its favor. Id. at 255.

         “The party seeking summary judgment shoulders the initial burden of demonstrating to the district court that there is no genuine issue of material fact.” Major v. Greenville Hous. Auth., 2012 WL 3000680, at *1 (D.S.C. Apr. 11, 2012). Nevertheless, “when a properly supported motion for summary judgment is made, the adverse party ‘must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). The plain language of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) “mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who 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.” Ce ...

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