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Robbins v. Rowan Vocational Opportunities, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

May 23, 2018



          LORETTA C. BIGGS, District Judge.

         Plaintiff, Sherry Robbins, brings this action against Defendant, Rowan Vocational Opportunities, Inc. (“RVO”), alleging race discrimination and retaliation in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”), and seeking punitive damages. (ECF No. 30.) Before the Court is Defendant's Renewed Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 36.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants Defendant's motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         RVO is a non-profit rehabilitation facility that provides disabled individuals with work adjustment services and life skills, as well as vocational training and long-term or transitory employment. (ECF No. 38-6 ¶ 2.) On September 24, 2009, Plaintiff, who is African-American, was hired by RVO as a Community Alternative Program (“CAP”) Technician. (See ECF No. 30 ¶ 3; ECF No. 38-2 at 7; ECF No. 38-4 at 22.) Plaintiff was later promoted to Innovations Program Manager. (See ECF No. 38-2 at 8-9; ECF No. 38-4 at 19.)

         In the fall of 2014, a consumer lodged a complaint against RVO's then-Executive Director, John Williams (“Williams”), alleging inappropriate touching by Williams. (ECF No. 38-2 at 10.) The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (“DHHS”) and the local police launched investigations into the allegations, during which Williams was placed on administrative leave. (Id. at 11, 14.) Garrett Yelton (“Yelton”) who, at the time, was serving as the Director of Operations at another facility, Cabarrus Vocational Opportunities, was selected to serve as RVO's acting Executive Director. (Id. at 15; ECF No. 38-5 at 8; see ECF No. 38-6 ¶ 2.) In May 2015, Yelton became RVO's Executive Director. (ECF No. 38-2 at 15.)

         In May 2015, Yelton informed the RVO staff of an available Qualified Professional (“QP”) position within the facility. (ECF No. 38-3 at 6; ECF No. 38-6 ¶ 4.) Plaintiff submitted her resume to Yelton to apply for the position. (ECF No. 38-3 at 5, 6.) Yelton informed Plaintiff, via email dated June 24, 2015, that he was unable to consider her for the QP position because, based on her resume, she did not have the DHHS-mandated[1] work experience necessary for the position. (ECF No. 38-4 at 12, 16.) “[T]he only two candidates who met the state-mandated qualifications were then-CAP/Innovations Technician Jermar Hoke (African-American) and an external candidate, Brandy Blackwell (Caucasian).” (ECF No. 38-6 ¶ 4.) Of these two candidates, Yelton ultimately selected Brandy Blackwell for the position. (Id. ¶ 8.)

         On May 4, 2015, Plaintiff was absent from work, without providing advance notice to Yelton or RVO's human resources department. (See ECF No. 38-2 at 20.) Approximately two weeks later, on May 18, 2015, Yelton met with Plaintiff and issued a written warning for having taken “unapproved time off for illness on 5/4/2015.” (ECF No. 38-4 at 2-3.) The warning also set forth improvements which were “immediately” required of Plaintiff, including that Plaintiff follow RVO's attendance policy. (Id. at 2.) Plaintiff refused to sign the warning, (id. at 3), and subsequently filed a grievance with RVO's Board of Directors (“Board”) against Yelton, (id. at 4; ECF No. 38-2 at 21; ECF No. 19-5 at 2). In response to Plaintiff's grievance, the Board met with Plaintiff, and she ultimately agreed with the Board's assessment that her communication issues with Yelton needed to improve. (See ECF No. 38-2 at 23-27.)

         On July 6, 2015, Yelton met with Plaintiff to discuss her Employee Performance Report (“performance evaluation”). (See ECF No. 38-4 at 5-7.) Plaintiff's evaluation reflected an overall “Below Standard” rating. (Id. at 7.) Plaintiff signed her performance evaluation and noted that she disagreed with the results. (Id.) Plaintiff then sent an email to the Board attempting to lodge a “retaliation/discrimination grievance against . . . Yelton based on the result of [her] evaluation.” (Id. at 9.) The next day, July 7, 2015, Stan Jordan, President of RVO's Board, responded to Plaintiff's email and informed her that, per RVO's Staff Grievance Policy, “[c]omplaints regarding performance appraisals . . . [were] not subject to a grievance.” (Id. at 9.)

         On July 8, 2015, Plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“First EEOC Charge”) in which she alleged discrimination based on race and retaliation. (Id. at 19.) Plaintiff specifically alleged that she was “subjected to a hostile work environment by the Executive Director, ” and that she was “issued disciplinary action, given a poor performance review, and denied promotion.” (Id.)

         Approximately seven months later, on or around February 12, 2016, Yelton suspended Plaintiff following a complaint from Ginger Pope (“Pope”), Executive Director of Cabarrus County Group Homes, Inc. (“CCGH”), about Plaintiff's harassing conduct towards the parent of a consumer. (See ECF No. 38-4 at 17-18; ECF No. 38-5 at 12-14; ECF No. 38-7.) Then, on February 16, 2016, Plaintiff filed a second Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC (“Second EEOC Charge”) alleging retaliation by RVO for having filed the First EEOC Charge. (ECF No. 38-4 at 21.) Plaintiff was ultimately terminated on February 17, 2016 for conduct deemed to be “inappropriate, unprofessional and [which] demonstrate[d] a complete lack of judgment.” (Id. at 18.) The next day, February 18, 2016, Plaintiff filed a third EEOC Charge of Discrimination (“Third EEOC Charge”) alleging retaliation for having filed the First and Second EEOC Charges. (Id. at 22.)

         Following the EEOC's issuance of its Dismissal and Notice of Rights as to the First EEOC Charge, dated January 12, 2016, (id. at 20), Plaintiff initiated the instant action in state court, which RVO timely removed to this Court, (see ECF Nos. 1, 2). At the time Plaintiff filed the instant lawsuit, her Second and Third EEOC Charges were still pending before the EEOC. (See ECF No. 28 at 2-3 (citing ECF No. 17 at 7-8).) On April 17, 2017, the EEOC issued Right to Sue letters as to Plaintiff's Second and Third EEOC Charges. (See ECF No. 30 ¶¶ 30, 32, 33.) Less than one month later, Plaintiff moved to amend her Complaint to add a fourth cause of action based on the claims of retaliation raised in her Second and Third EEOC Charges. (See ECF Nos. 21, 21-1.) Plaintiff's motion to amend was filed during the pendency of Defendant's initial Motion for Summary Judgment. This Court granted Plaintiff's motion to amend and stayed RVO's Motion for Summary Judgment to allow for limited supplemental discovery with respect to the issues raised in Plaintiff's newly-added claim. (See ECF No. 28.) Following the close of the limited supplemental discovery period, RVO filed a Renewed Motion for Summary Judgment seeking dismissal of Plaintiff's Amended Complaint in its entirety. (See ECF No. 36.)


         Summary judgment is appropriate when “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The court must view the evidence and “resolve all factual disputes and any competing, rational inferences in the light most favorable” to the nonmoving party. Rossignol v. Voorhaar, 316 F.3d 516, 523 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting Wightman v. Springfield Terminal Ry. Co., 100 F.3d 228, 230 (1st Cir. 1996)). The role of the court is not “to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter” but rather “to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). A genuine issue for trial exists only when “there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party.” Id. “If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted.” Id. at 249-50 (citations omitted).

         In opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party cannot rest on “mere allegations or denials, ” id. at 248, and “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). “The summary judgment inquiry thus scrutinizes the plaintiff's case to determine whether the plaintiff has proffered sufficient proof, in the form of admissible evidence, that could carry the burden of proof of his claim at trial.” Mitchell v. Data Gen. Corp., 12 F.3d 1310, 1316 (4th Cir. 1993).


         A. Racial Discrimination (First Cause of Action)

         i. Failure-to-Promote Claim

         Plaintiff alleges that she was “denied a promotion on the basis of her race, Black, in 2015.” (ECF No. 30 ¶ 5.) Plaintiff further alleges that “[d]espite having served as the acting Qualified Professional during the candidate search period, she was not even interviewed for the permanent position” which was ultimately “filled by a person of the Caucasian race who, upon information and belief, was not as qualified as Plaintiff.” (Id.) Defendant argues that this claim fails as a matter of law because Plaintiff was not qualified for the QP position and has, therefore, failed to establish a prima facie case of discriminatory failure to promote. (ECF No. 38 at 8.)

         Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is unlawful for an employer “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to [her] compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). To establish a prima facie case of failure to promote based on race, Plaintiff must show the following: (1) that she is a member of a protected group; (2) that she applied for the position in question; (3) that she was qualified for the position; and (4) that RVO rejected her for the position under circumstances giving rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination. Carter v. Ball, 33 F.3d 450, 458 (4th Cir. 1994).

         “[T]he establishment of a prima facie case of employment discrimination requires proof by a preponderance of the evidence that the plaintiff was not promoted or dismissed ‘under conditions which, more likely than not, were based upon impermissible racial considerations.'” Gairola v. Commonwealth of Va. Dep't of Gen. Servs., 753 F.2d 1281, 1286 (4th Cir. 1985) (quoting Young v. Lehman, 748 F.2d 194, 196 (4th Cir. 1984)). Plaintiff can establish her prima facie case either through direct evidence or by utilizing the McDonnell Douglas[2] burden-shifting framework. Under this framework, once the plaintiff has established a prima facie case, the employer may rebut that case “by demonstrating that the person promoted was better qualified for the position.” Amirmokri v. Baltimore Gas & Elec. Co., 60 F.3d 1126, 1129 (4th Cir. 1995). The burden then shifts back to Plaintiff to show that the reason provided by the employer for promoting the selected applicant was pretextual. Id. at 1129-30. Because the Court finds that Plaintiff has failed to bring forth direct evidence of discrimination, [3] Plaintiff must, therefore, utilize the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting scheme.

         Under the applicable DHHS rules, in order to serve as a QP, one must have graduated from a college or university “with a bachelor's degree in a human service field and [must have] two years of full-time, post-bachelor's degree accumulated . . . experience with the population served.” 10A N.C. Admin. Code 27G.0104(19)(c). Plaintiff argues that she was qualified for the QP position because “her performance evaluations were positive, [she] performed adequately, she had obtained the college degree, and had been working with the consumers for several years.” (ECF No. 19 at 4.)[4] The Court finds these arguments unavailing in the face of evidence, including Plaintiff's own testimony, which shows that Plaintiff did not meet the state-mandated qualifications for a QP.

         Yelton posted the available QP position in May 2015. (ECF No. 38-6 ¶ 4; ECF No. 38-3 at 6.) Plaintiff had earned a bachelor's degree, nine months earlier, in August 2014. (See ECF No. 38-4 at 11.) However, as Plaintiff admitted in her deposition, at the time she applied for the position, she had not accumulated the required two years, full-time, post-bachelor's degree work experience. (ECF No. 38-3 at 7-8; ECF No. 38-5 at 9-10.) Plaintiff was, thus, ineligible to be considered as a candidate for the available QP position. Plaintiff also admitted that she was not more qualified than Blackwell, the candidate who was ultimately selected for the QP position. (See ECF No. 38-3 at 9 (“Q. Do you believe you were more qualified than Ms. Blackwell for the QP position? A. No, ma'am. Q. You don't? A. No.”).)

         Plaintiff further argues that “the allegation that she was not qualified is refuted by her employment [as a QP] for another employer since leaving the Defendant's employ.” (ECF No. 40 at 5.) Plaintiff's subsequent employment as a QP at another facility does nothing, however, to change the fact that, as discussed above, at the time Plaintiff applied for the QP position at RVO, she did not have the state-mandated qualifications necessary for a QP- namely, two years of ...

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