Bouknight v. S.C. Dep't of Corr., CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:19-0456-MGL

Decision Date16 September 2020
Docket NumberCIVIL ACTION NO. 3:19-0456-MGL
Citation487 F.Supp.3d 449
Parties Frances S. BOUKNIGHT, Plaintiff, v. SOUTH CAROLINA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of South Carolina

ORDER ADOPTING THE REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION AND GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

MARY GEIGER LEWIS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Frances S. Bouknight (Bouknight) filed this lawsuit against her former employer, Defendant South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDOC), alleging Title VII claims of hostile work environment, constructive discharge, sex discrimination, and retaliation. The Court has federal question jurisdiction over this action in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

The matter is before the Court for consideration of the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation (Report) suggesting SCDOC's motion for summary judgment be granted in part and denied in part. Specifically, she recommends the Court grant SCDOC's motion for summary judgment as to Bouknight's claims of hostile work environment, constructive discharge, and sexdiscrimination, and deny it as to her retaliation cause of action. The Magistrate Judge submits the Report in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636 and Local Civil Rule 73.02 for the District of South Carolina.

The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this Court. The recommendation has no presumptive weight. The responsibility to make a final determination remains with the Court. Mathews v. Weber , 423 U.S. 261, 270, 96 S.Ct. 549, 46 L.Ed.2d 483 (1976). The Court is charged with making a de novo determination of those portions of the Report to which specific objection is made, and the Court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation of the Magistrate Judge or recommit the matter with instructions. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

The Magistrate Judge filed the Report on May 29, 2020, Bouknight and SCDOC filed their objections on June 26, 2020, and they filed their replies to each others’ objections on July 10, 2020. The Court has reviewed the objections from both parties, but holds them to be without merit. It will therefore enter judgment accordingly.

II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Bouknight is woman who served as the Adult Education Director for the Palmetto Unified School District (the District) beginning in the fall of 2011. The District operates within the South Carolina Department of Corrections.

Bouknight's supervisor, Randy Reagan (Reagan), was, at all relevant times to this lawsuit, Superintendent of the District. In Bouknight's position as the Adult Education Director, she supervised around fifty percent of the school leaders in the District's correctional facilities. This included hiring, monthly training, in-school observation, annual reviews, and discipline.

Although Bouknight and Reagan's working relationship was initially pleasant, it began to sour in late 2015 to early 2016. The Magistrate Judge provides the following list of events, as Bouknight describes them, that are pertinent to her lawsuit against SCDOC:

  Late November 2015     Reagan directs "angry outburst" toward
                                         Bouknight in front of other SCDC employees
                  December 2015          Angry outburst in front of Principal Paul
                                         Martin [(Martin)]. Martin expresses concern
                                         to Bouknight about Reagan's behavior
                  Mid-January 2016       Reagan treats Bouknight in an "angry
                                         manner" and excludes her from work duties
                  January 29, 2016       Reagan makes "venomous" comments to
                                         Bouknight during weekly staff meeting
                  March [4-8], 2016      Reagan confronts Bouknight about
                                         coworkers' reports that she had said to others
                                         that he was a "poor leader." Bouknight denies
                                         making this statement, but is issued [a
                                         Memorandum of Understanding] for
                                         "insubordination."
                  March 21, 2016         Reagan removes two employees from
                                         Bouknight's supervision
                  April 4, 2016          Reagan directs "anger and blame" toward
                                         Bouknight at a meeting. Bouknight reports
                                         concerns to Human Resources about Reagan's
                                         behavior toward her.
                  April 15, 2016         Meeting with Human Resources: Reagan is
                                         informed of Bouknight's complaints about his
                                         "bullying."
                  April 27, 2016         Reagan gives Bouknight a negative
                                         performance evaluation.
                  [May 12, 2016.         Reagan learns of Bouknight's purported
                                         failure to inform him of her prior relationship
                                         with an applicant for a position at the
                                         District.]
                
                  May 16, 2016           Reagan reassigns duties away from
                                         Bouknight.
                  June 7-9, 2016         Bouknight complains of retaliation to
                                         Reagan's supervisor and Human Resources.
                                         Reagan takes away staff assistant to
                                         Bouknight....
                  July 19-26, 2016       Reagan changes Bouknight's position
                                         description to remove supervisory duties.
                  August 1-18, 2016      Bouknight complains to Reagan's supervisor
                                         and legal counsel and has several meetings
                                         with them.
                  August 19, 2016        Reagan removes all supervisory duties from
                                         Bouknight.
                  August 22, 2016        Bouknight files Sexual Harassment/Hostile
                                         Work Environment Complaint with
                                         [SCDOC].
                  September 15, 2016     Reagan receives a written warning after
                                         investigation of Bouknight's complaint.
                  Early 2017             Reagan summons Bouknight to a meeting
                                         with Martin and berates Bouknight.
                  March 28, 2017         Reagan "acts out in anger" toward Bouknight.
                                         Bouknight reports the outburst in an Incident
                                         Report to Human Resources on May 23, 2017.
                  April 25-26, 2017      Reagan "ridicules and screams at Bouknight"
                                         in front of staff.
                  April 26, 2107         Bouknight complains to Reagan's supervisor.
                  May 23, 2017           Bouknight reports the March and April 2017
                                         outbursts in an Incident Report to Human
                                         Resources.
                  May 31, 2017           Bouknight is demoted [and reassigned from
                                         being the Adult Education Director for the
                
                                         District to being a teacher at the District's
                                         Manning High School.]
                  June 8, 2017           Bouknight grieves her demotion. Grievance
                                         is denied [on] June 19, 2017.
                  June 6, 2017           Bouknight begins medical leave.
                  July 13, 2017          Bouknight files an EEOC Charge.
                  August 11, 2017        Bouknight resigns.
                

Report at 2-3 (punctuation modified).

Bouknight subsequently filed suit against SCDOC in the Richland County Court of Common Pleas. SCDOC removed the case to this Court; and thereafter filed a motion for summary judgment as to all of Bouknight's claims, Bouknight filed a response in opposition, and SCDOC filed a reply.

As the Court noted above, after the Magistrate Judge considered the motion, she suggested the Court grant SCDOC's motion for summary judgment as to Bouknight's claims of hostile work environment, constructive discharge, and sex discrimination, and deny it as to her retaliation cause of action.

III. DISCUSSION AND ANALYSIS

In considering Bouknight's Title VII claims, because hers is a circumstantial case, the Court must employ the familiar burden-shifting scheme set out in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green , 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973). Under the McDonnell Douglas framework, an employee must first establish a prima facie case of her Title VII claims. Id. at 802, 93 S.Ct. 1817.

Only if the employee successfully demonstrates a prima facie case does the burden shift to the employer to articulate some legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for the adverse employment action. Id. If the employer does so, the burden shifts back to the employee to show that the articulated reason was actually a pretext for discrimination. Id. at 804, 93 S.Ct. 1817.

A. Bouknight's Objections

Bouknight lodges fourteen objections to the Magistrate Judge's recommendation the Court grant SCDOC's motion for summary judgment as to her hostile work environment, constructive discharge, and sex discrimination causes of action.

First, she refutes the Magistrate Judge's advice to the Court that she failed to meet the severe and pervasive standard necessary for her hostile work environment and constructive discharge claims. The focus of this objection is on her belief that the Magistrate Judge erred by determining "a reasonable jury could not find that [her] work environment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of her employment and create an abusive work environment based on her sex and her protected activities." Objections at 3.

The Court will first address this objection as it relates to Bouknight's hostile work environment claim. To establish a prima facie Title VII hostile work environment cause of action, the plaintiff must show: "(1) unwelcome conduct; (2) that is based on the plaintiff's [being a woman]; (3) which is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the plaintiff's conditions of employment and to create an abusive work environment; and (4) which is imputable to the employer." Okoli v. City Of Baltimore , 648 F.3d 216, 220 (4th Cir. 2011) (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted) (alteration marks omitted).

The "severe...

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