Lewis v. Richland Cnty. Recreation Comm'n

Decision Date30 July 2018
Docket NumberCivil Action No.: 3:16-cv-2884-MGL-TER
CourtU.S. District Court — District of South Carolina
PartiesTAURUS LEWIS, Plaintiff, v. RICHLAND COUNTY RECREATION COMMISSION, and JAMES BROWN, III, DAVID STRINGER, and TARA DICKERSON, in their individual capacities, Defendants.

This case arises from Plaintiff's employment with Defendant Richland County Recreation Commission (RCRC). Plaintiff alleges causes of action for race discrimination and retaliation1 pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), 42 U.S.C. § 2000(e) et seq., violation of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq., defamation, and civil conspiracy. Presently before the court are the parties' cross motions for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 46, 47). All pretrial proceedings in this case were referred to the undersigned pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) and (B) and Local Rule 73.02(B)(2)(g), DSC. Because these are dispositive motions, this Report and Recommendation is entered for review by the district judge.


Plaintiff, Taurus Lewis, and African-American male, began employment with DefendantRichland County Recreation Commission on July 30, 2001 as an Assistant Recreation Center Director. Plaintiff's 2001 Employment Confirmation (Ex. A to Pl. Motion). On March 17, 2003, Plaintiff was promoted to the Recreation Center Director of RCRC's Eastover Park. Plaintiff's 2003 Employment Confirmation (Ex. B to Pl. Motion). On February 23, 2009, Plaintiff became a Park Manager I. Plaintiff's 2009 Employment Confirmation (Ex. C to Pl. Motion). Shortly thereafter, he received another promotion to the Deputy of Park Operations over all of RCRC's parks on May 31, 2009. Employment Status Change (Ex. D to Pl. Motion). On January 9, 2011, Plaintiff became the full-time Facility Operations Division Head. Plaintiff's 2011 Employment Confirmation (Ex. E to Pl. Motion); Plaintiff's Salary Sheet (Ex. T to Pl. Motion). Plaintiff performed at a consistently high level, as reflected on his performance evaluations showing that he received an overall rating of "exceeds expectations" each year from 2011-2014. Performance Evaluations (Ex. N to Pl. Motion).

David Stringer, a Caucasian male, served as the Division Head of Human Resources during the relevant time period. Stringer Dep. 57 (Ex. E to Def. Motion). Tara Dickerson, a Caucasian female, was appointed Chief of Staff effective January 6, 2016. One of her responsibilities was managing staff/employment matters and reporting to Executive Director Defendant James Brown, an African-American male. Organization Chart (Ex. F to Def. Motion); Dickerson Dep. 24, 325 (Ex. G to Def. Motion); Pl. Dep. 23 (Ex. C. to Def. Motion); Stringer Dep. 38, 78.

In 2013, Plaintiff began noticing Brown make racially charged comments about other employees. Pl. Dep. 22 (Ex. Z to Pl. Motion). Plaintiff "expressed to Mr. Brown on many occasions that [] [he] didn't think a person, the color of their skin defines a person's character of their job." Pl. Dep. 22 (Ex. Z to Pl. Motion).

In September 2015, Plaintiff began experiencing headaches, stress, and chest pain. Pl. Dep. 33 (Ex. Z to Pl. Motion). He called a meeting with Defendant Stringer, the head of HumanResources, and his supervisor, Kenya Bryant. Pl. Dep. 33 (Ex. Z to Pl. Motion). Plaintiff then informed the two that Defendant Brown, on multiple occasions, made advances toward Plaintiff's wife. Pl. Dep. 33-36 (Ex. Z to Pl. Motion).

In December 2015, Plaintiff became aware of a sexual harassment complaint filed by Andrea James against Defendant Brown. Pl. Dep. 52 (Ex. Z to Pl. Motion). Columbia attorney Linda Edwards was asked to investigate James's allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation. Edwards Dep. 13-15 and Ex. 1 (Ex. X to Pl. Motion). Ms. Edwards was selected by Defendant Stringer and approved by the Board as an outside, independent investigator with experience in similar investigations. Edwards Dep. 18-21, Ex. 2,3 & 4. Edwards began her investigation by obtaining a list of persons at RCRC who might have personal knowledge of Brown's actions. Edwards Dep. 13-15, 26-27. On the list was Plaintiff and approximately twenty other employees. Edwards Dep. 33-35. Edwards requested Stringer to make these witnesses available for private interviews, which were held at her law office in downtown Columbia. Edwards Dep. Ex. 2.

Defendant Stringer told Plaintiff to participate in the investigation, but Plaintiff was concerned because he "knew the ramification that was going to come behind it." Pl. Dep. 52 (Ex. Z to Pl. Motion). Plaintiff and other employees felt Brown fostered a hostile work environment but feared retaliation if they complained about it:

[B]eing that Mr. Stringer as the HR director, Ms. Dickerson as the chief of staff, all employees knew that they directly reported to Mr. Brown, so nobody, including myself, was comfortable with going to either one of them for advice, for concerns to file a complaint because we all knew that they would go straight to [Mr. Brown], and ultimately he would have them suspended, dismissed, or removed.

Cooper Dep. 63-64 (Ex. V to Pl. Motion). Anthony Cooper2, Director of Procurement for RCRC,testified that "[e]veryone was fearful to go to Mr. Stringer or HR to file any kind of complaint because of retaliation. Cooper Dep. 65. Plaintiff testified that he was made to feel like "the scapegoat or the fallback guy for whatever reason. It would always be [his] fault for something." Pl. Dep. 107 (Ex. Z to Pl. Motion). Further, a majority of the board of Defendant RCRC backed Mr. Brown because his relationship with the chairwoman gave him increased authority:

Q. [W]hat power did Ms. Greene have over the Board as a chairperson from what you could observe yourself?
A. Ms. Greene had supreme power.
Q. What do you mean by that?
A. She - it was whatever she says goes. She had - she knew she had the majority vote with Ms. Mickens, with Mr. George Martin and Mr. Wes Furgess and herself. That was the majority vote. So whichever way she wanted to - whatever direction she wanted to go in, she had those three supporters.
Q. How would - what did you observe about Mr. Brown's relationship with Ms. Greene, Ms. Mickens and perhaps the others that you mentioned?
A. Very close, very personable.

Cooper Dep. 180. Because of his relationship with the voting block above mentioned, "Mr. Brown, he ruled as a bully would rule, and any time you went against anything that he said, he would retaliate. He would see to it that either you got relocated or you got dismissed." Cooper Dep. 182-83. However, Plaintiff approached Defendant Brown directly about the investigation and was not discouraged by him from being interviewed by Edwards. Pl. Dep. 52-53 (Ex. Z to Pl. Motion). Therefore, Plaintiff made arrangements to meet with Linda Edwards, the investigator, and met with her privately in her law office. Pl. Dep. 53-54 (Ex. Z to Pl. Motion).

Plaintiff testified that "[f]or a while [I] was kind of quiet, didn't really say a whole lot . . . because [I didn't] want [it] to get back to Mr. Brown or anybody about what's being said." Pl. Dep. 54 (Ex. Z to Pl. Motion). Plaintiff elaborated on what he meant about Mr. Brown:

I told her that if Mr. Brown feel that anybody is coming after him or doing anything to his livelihood or his family, he's going to take recourse. And it's not going to be good for anybody. He's going to come after you. And like I told her, I seen it happenfirsthand. I know how Mr. Brown operates. When he's locked and loaded, he put his mind on you, his enemy, you are his enemy.

Pl. Dep. 55 (Ex. Z to Pl. Motion).

Nonetheless, Plaintiff provided his accounts of Defendant Brown's sexual behavior he had witnessed. Pl. Dep. 56-59, 136-37, 143 (Ex. Z to Pl. Motion). Plaintiff did not report these incidents prior to Edwards' interview because he "[knew] if [he] went to David [Stringer], David would report it to Mr. Brown." Pl. Dep. 60. Employees "didn't have nobody to go to at that place. . . [They] didn't have an outlet. HR nor the board." Pl. Dep. 61.

At the end of her investigation, on April 4, 2016, Edwards submitted a written report in Executive Session to the Board with information obtained through her interviews from all the witnesses, including Lewis, They were read and observed by all Board members. Edwards Dep. 57-63. The "Edwards Report" was never made public. The Board voted in a split vote to "uphold the Executive Director." RCRC Special Call Board Meeting Minutes for April 4, 2016 (Ex. F to Pl. Motion).

Plaintiff testified that after the investigation, the work environment became hostile for the employees who participated in it:

[E]verybody that - when they talked to that lady, [his] staff started getting a raff [SIC] from [Defendant] Brown. Everybody. All of [his] staff that went and talked to [Linda Edwards] started getting it from [Defendant Brown]. Take this away. Park the cars. They going to lunch at this time. This time. This time. Everything was personal with him.

Pl. Dep. 85 (Ex. Z to Pl. Motion). Plaintiff testified that Defendant Brown "made a statement that he knew everything that everybody said in that report because he knows exactly how it was said. And everybody that said something about him, he was going to deal with them." Pl. Dep. 156 (Ex. Z to Pl. Motion). "People was very - they were very, very afraid." Pl. Dep. 86 (Ex. Z to Pl. Motion).

On April 5, 2016, Plaintiff was put on suspension with pay while accusations of inappropriate actions were investigated. Lewis Suspension Letter (Ex. G to Pl. Motion). Plaintiff felt, however, that he was likely being terminated:

My keys, my work phone, my work vehicle, my email was all taken and disabled on that day. When that happens to you, in my past belongings and dealing with RCRC, that means you're terminated. I've had to do it on many occasions, taking employees keys, badge, and all that stuff. So

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