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Stephens v. North Carolina Department of Public Safety

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

June 13, 2018




         This cause comes before the Court on defendant's motion for summary judgment. The matter has been fully briefed and is ripe for ruling. For the following reasons, that motion is granted.


         Plaintiff, Angela Miles Stephens, applied to a clinical social worker position with North Carolina's Department of Public Safety in 2015. While she was selected for an interview, she claims she did not receive the email and phone messages sent to her to inform her of the fact. Plaintiff did not contact the Department until the interview window had closed and so was not given the opportunity to interview for the position. Plaintiff alleges she was deliberately not contacted in retaliation for previous allegations of discrimination she made against the Department. Plaintiff also alleges that she was not considered for an Assistant Superintendent position, and that this was also retaliation.

         Plaintiff filed this suit in Cumberland County Superior Court, alleging a Title VII claim and a related state law claim. Defendant then removed the suit to this Court. Following discovery, defendant has moved for summary judgment.


         A motion for summary judgment may not be granted unless there are no genuine issues of material fact for trial and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). If that burden has been met, the non-moving party must then come forward and establish the specific material facts in dispute to survive summary judgment. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 588 (1986). In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists for trial, a trial court views the evidence and the inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007). However, "[t]he mere existence of a scintilla of evidence" in support of the nonmoving party's position is not sufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment; "there must be evidence on which the [fact finder] could reasonably find for the [nonmoving party]." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986). Speculative or conclusory allegations will not suffice. Thompson v. Potomac Elec. Power Co., 312 F.3d 645, 649 (4th Cir. 2002). Plaintiff has made two claims: a federal Title VII claim, and a supplemental, claim under North Carolina law, N.C. G.S. § 143-422.2.

         I. Title VII

         Absent direct evidence, a plaintiff can allege unlawful discrimination using the McDonnell Douglas framework. McDonnell Douglas Corp v. Green, 411 U.S 792 (1973). To do so, a plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination or retaliation. Tex. Dept. of Cmty Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 252-56 (1981). A prima facie Title VII retaliation claim has three parts. 42 U.S.C. § 2000(e); Guessous v. Fairview Property Investments, LLC, 828 F.3d 208, 217 (4th Cir. 2016). First, the plaintiff must show that she engaged in protected activity. Id. Second, she must show that the employer took an adverse action against her. Id. And third, she must show that a causal relationship existed between (1) and (2). Id.

         Causality may be implied when there is close temporal proximity between the protected activity and the adverse action, but an extended gap will break the link. Tillery v. Piedmont Airlines, Inc., 713 Fed.Appx. 181, 185 (4th Cir. 2017) (a year and a half is insufficient); Causey v. Balog, 162 F.3d 795, 803 (4th Cir. 1998)) (thirteen months is insufficient).

         Additionally, the employer must know that the plaintiff engaged in protected activity. Dowe v. Total Action against Poverty in Roanoke Valley, 145 F.3d 653, 657 (4th Cir. 1998). "By definition, an employer cannot take action because of a factor of which it is unaware." Id. Knowledge is not automatically imputed to every individual employee of an institutional defendant just because the institution as a whole was previously involved in a lawsuit or other proceeding with the plaintiff. Villa v. CavaMezze Grill, LLC, 858 F.3d 896, 901 (4th Cir. 2017). The standard is actual knowledge by the decision-maker- the person or persons who decided to do whatever is alleged to be adverse. Id. ("The facts the decision-maker actually perceived matter."); Hill v. Lockheed Martin Logistics Mgmt., Inc., 354 F.3d 277, 286 (4th Cir. 2004) ("In embarking upon a determination of who is a 'decisionmaker' for purposes of discrimination actions brought under Title VII and the ADEA, we begin with the language of the statutes."). Holland v. Washington Homes, Inc., 487 F.3d 208, 217 (4th Cir. 2007) ("It is the perception of the decisionmaker which is relevant.").

         It is unquestioned that plaintiff can establish step one of the prima facie retaliation inquiry. She has filed two previous federal lawsuits against the North Carolina Department of Corrections, the previous name of defendant, alleging discrimination. Miles-Stephens v. North Carolina Dept. of Corrections, 5:11-CV-597-D (E.D. N.C. July 7, 2014); Stephens v. North Carolina Dept. of Corrections, 5:06-CV-261-FL (E.D. N.C. Feb. 2, 2007). Plaintiff argues she experienced two adverse actions in retaliation for this. The Court will address each in turn.

         A. Assistant Superintendent Position

         Plaintiff appears to have abandoned this argument, but in her original complaint, she alleges that she was improperly rejected from ...

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