United States District Court, Middle District of North Carolina
JOHN M. PIERCE, SR., Plaintiff,
UNIVERSAL STEEL OF NORTH CAROLINA, LCC, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
THOMAS D. SCHROEDER, District Judge.
The Recommendation of the United States Magistrate Judge was filed with the court in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and, on January 13, 2014, was served on the parties in this action. (Docs. 31, 32.) Plaintiff John M. Pierce, Sr., filed timely objections (Doc. 33) to the Recommendation pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72, and Defendant Universal Steel of North Carolina, LLC (“Universal Steel”) filed a response (Doc. 34).
The Magistrate Judge recommended that this court grant Universal Steel’s motion to dismiss Pierce’s retaliation claim brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (Doc. 31.) The allegations of Pierce’s amended complaint are adequately described in the Recommendation (see id. at 1–3) but will be summarized here in relevant part.
Pierce, an African-American, was originally an employee of Triad Steel, Co., before that company was purchased by Universal Steel in 2006. (Doc. 26 ¶ 10.) After the transition, Pierce made some complaints to his supervisors to the effect that he believed white employees were being paid more than their black counterparts. (Id. ¶¶ 22, 25.) However, nothing more was done until 2011, when Universal Steel hired Richard Roth as its Production Manager. (Id. ¶ 27.) Pierce alleges that Roth subjected him and other minority employees to a string of “derogatory, stereotypical, and bigoted remarks” approximately once or twice per week. (Id. ¶ 30.) In July 2011, Pierce and another employee confronted Roth regarding the favorable treatment of white employees. (Id. ¶ 33.) Apparently, nothing was done at this time. In October, Pierce spoke to Roth again after Roth assigned Pierce a new task without allowing Pierce a chance to finish what he had been working on. (Id. ¶¶ 36–37.) Pierce complained that white employees were allowed to do nothing while Roth piled assignments on the minority employees. (Id. ¶ 37.) Roth responded that Pierce should quit, but Pierce said he would not be intimidated out of his job. (Id. ¶ 38.) Pierce was subsequently laid off on October 20, 2013, along with seven other employees (six white and one black). (Id. ¶ 40.) Although Universal Steel began hiring back the white employees the next week, Pierce was never re-hired; instead, Roth told him in November that his position had been outsourced. (Id. ¶¶ 41– 44.) Pierce was officially informed via letter on December 15 that he had been terminated. (Id. ¶¶ 46–47.)
The Magistrate Judge concluded that Pierce’s amended complaint failed to state a claim for retaliation and therefore that the claim should be dismissed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). First, the Magistrate Judge found that the harassment alleged by Pierce did not rise to the level of an adverse employment action under the Supreme Court’s decision in Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 67–69 (2006). Next, he concluded that Roth’s harassment could not have been retaliatory because it was not alleged that Roth knew about Pierce’s 2006 complaints. Finally, the Magistrate Judge concluded that there was no causal connection between any of Pierce’s actions and his termination, and that “[t]he lapse in time between [Pierce’s] alleged complaints and his termination . . . tends to negate any causal link between the two events.” (Doc. 31 at 8.)
A. Standard of review
Pierce objects to all three of the Magistrate Judge’s conclusions. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b)(3), this court is required to conduct a de novo review of those portions of the Magistrate Judge’s Recommendation to which an objection is made. See Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005). The court reviews for clear error those portions of a Recommendation to which no timely objection was made. Id. Here, Pierce essentially has objected to all of the Magistrate Judge’s conclusions, necessitating a de novo review of the entire Recommendation.
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) provides that a complaint must contain a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief. Under Rule 12(b)(6), “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter . . . to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is plausible “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557). At the pleadings stage, the court must accept the complaint’s factual allegations as true. Id.
B. Retaliation claim
As the Magistrate Judge properly stated, in order to make out a prima facie retaliation claim under Title VII, an employee must show that (1) he engaged in protected activity; (2) the employer took an adverse action against him; and (3) there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the asserted adverse employment action. Coleman v. Md. Court of Appeals, 626 F.3d 187, 190 (4th Cir. 2010). Pierce specifically challenges the Magistrate Judge’s conclusions regarding the second and third prongs of the prima facie case. However, consistent with the above standards, the court will review all three elements.
1. Protected Activity
Title VII’s retaliation provision provides “[i]t shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against any of his employees . . . because he has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a). Pierce specifically confronted Roth regarding Universal Steel’s supposed pay discrimination, which is a practice made unlawful by Title VII. See Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 550 U.S. 618 (2007) (superseded by 42 U.S.C. § ...