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Colson v. Turner

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Statesville Division

January 8, 2020

JENNIFER ZICCARDI-COLSON KEITH COLSON, Plaintiffs,
v.
WAYNE TURNER MARGARET TURNER WILDLIFE WOODS CAMPGROUND, INC., Defendants.

          ORDER

          Kenneth D. Bell United States District Judge

         In this action Plaintiffs Keith Colson and Jennifer Ziccardi-Colson (together the “Colsons”) allege that Defendants violated 42 U.S.C. § 1981 by discriminating against the Colsons on the basis of their race when the Colsons were denied an opportunity to lease a campsite at the Defendant Wildlife Woods Campground, Inc. (the “Campground”). Now before the Court are Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 15) and Motion for Sanctions (Doc. No. 21).

         The Court has carefully considered these motions and the parties' briefs and exhibits and heard oral argument on the motions from the parties' counsel on January 8, 2020. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will GRANT Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment but will DENY their Motion for Sanctions. Defendants are entitled to summary judgment because Plaintiffs have not presented evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that Defendant Wayne Turner knew Plaintiffs' race when he denied their application for membership in the Campground. However, the Court finds that the alleged conduct of the Campgrounds' employees, Defendants' abrupt refusal to provide Plaintiffs information about the reasons for the denial of their membership application and potential inconsistencies in the evidence raised suspicions of racial discrimination that reasonably supported the filing and pursuit of this litigation.

         I. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Variety Stores, Inc. v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 888 F.3d 651, 659 (4th Cir. 2018) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a)). See United States, f/u/b Modern Mosaic, LTD v. Turner Construction Co., et al., __F.3d __, 2019 WL 7174550 (4th Cir. 2019). A factual dispute is considered genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). “A fact is material if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Vannoy v. Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, 827 F.3d 296, 300 (4th Cir. 2016) (quoting Libertarian Party of Va. v. Judd, 718 F.3d 308, 313 (4th Cir. 2013)).

         The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact through citations to the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions or affidavits in the record. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); Bouchat v. Baltimore Ravens Football Club, Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 522 (4th Cir. 2003). “The burden on the moving party may be discharged by ‘showing' ... an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. Once this initial burden is met, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party. The nonmoving party “must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial, ” Id. at 322 n.3. The nonmoving party may not rely upon mere allegations or denials of allegations in his pleadings to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Id. at 324.

         In determining if summary judgment is appropriate, “courts must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and refrain from weigh[ing] the evidence or mak[ing] credibility determinations.” Variety Stores, 888 F.3d at 659 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Lee v. Town of Seaboard, 863 F.3d 323, 327 (4th Cir. 2017)); see Modern Mosaic at *2. “Summary judgment cannot be granted merely because the court believes that the movant will prevail if the action is tried on the merits.” Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts, 780 F.3d 562, 568-69 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting 10A Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller et al., Federal Practice & Procedure § 2728 (3d ed.1998)).

         However, “[w]here the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial.” Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 586 (2009) (internal citations omitted). “Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. Also, the mere argued existence of a factual dispute does not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion. Id. If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment is appropriate. Id. at 249-50.

         In the end, the question posed by a summary judgment motion is whether the evidence as applied to the governing legal rules “is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Id. at 252.

         II. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY [1]

         The Colsons, who are an interracial couple, wanted to purchase a camper which was permanently located on a leased site at the Wildlife Woods campground. The camper was owned by Rick and Regina Hampton, who are white friends of the Colsons. The Colsons wanted to use the campsite for recreational purposes and for convenient temporary housing for Plaintiff Ziccardi-Colson, a nurse who works in a hospital not far from the Campground.[2]

         Mr. Colson visited the property a total of three times-once by himself, and the other two times with Ms. Ziccardi-Colson. On or around May 31, 2015, Mr. Colson made his initial visit by himself to the Campground to examine the Wildlife Woods property as a whole. (Keith Colson Dep. 74:7). Around June 10, 2015, both Mr. Colson and Mrs. Ziccardi-Colson visited the campground to look at the camper owned by the Hamptons as well as view the rest of the site. While on the property, the Plaintiffs stopped by the office. Only Mr. Colson went into the office, while Mrs. Ziccardi-Colson remained in the car. There, Mr. Colson spoke to Jane McNealy, a white female employee. (Keith Colson Dep. 109:2-14) The Colsons then drove around the campsite in search of the lot.

         They also decided on that date to explore the opportunity to acquire other properties. While the Plaintiffs were driving around, they noticed several "For Sale" signs on properties and circled the available lots on a map of the property. (Plaintiffs Ex. 3). When the Plaintiffs arrived back at the office, they allegedly were met with disdain by an older white woman who was an employee of Wildlife Woods and a white male who glared at them. When Plaintiff Ziccardi-Colson inquired about properties that were listed for sale in the sales book, the employee allegedly stated in a contemptuous manner that each of the properties had been sold. When Plaintiff Ziccardi-Colson inquired about a boat for sale that was displayed on the dry erase board, McNealy quickly wiped the board with her hand and said in a demeaning manner that the boat had been sold as well. (Keith Colson Dep. 89:20-92:10; Ziccardi-Colson 46:1; 47:44).

         On June 12, 2015, the Colsons returned to Wildlife Woods to confirm the availability of other campsites and to look at Lot No. 148, which the Hamptons owned. After viewing the camper and campsite, the Colsons left the property. There is no evidence that either Wayne or Margaret Turner were in the office or otherwise met or saw the Colsons during their various visits to the Campground.

         On June 15, 2015, the Colsons and the Hamptons negotiated a price for the camper, and Keith Colson submitted a Membership Application by fax to the Campground. (Keith Colson Dep. 55:8-56:9). The application does not ask for the race of the applicant and the Colsons did not indicate their race on the application. After receiving Mr. Colson's application, the Campground's office faxed it to Wayne Turner, who Defendants claim is the sole decision-maker concerning whether to grant or deny membership applications submitted to the Campground. (Wayne Turner (“Turner”) Dec. ¶ 4).

         Defendants testified that in evaluating the Colson's application, Mr. Turner followed the same protocol he previously followed with all membership applications, which was to ask the Campground's security officer, Robert Pruette, who also is a deputy with the Catawba County Sheriff's Department, to run a “background check” on both Plaintiffs. (Turner Dec. ¶¶ 5-7, 10-11). Mr. Turner says that he believes that if someone cannot follow the rules of the road or the State, they are unlikely to follow the rules of the Campground. (Turner Dec. ¶¶ 11, 12). Plaintiffs have not presented evidence that disputes either that Mr. Turner is the sole decisionmaker or the consistency of his process for approving Campground membership applications.

         After running a background check, Deputy Pruette advised Mr. Turner that Mr. Colson had a number of traffic offenses and that Ms. Ziccardi-Colson's record had been sealed in New York. (Turner Dec. ¶ 10; Declaration of Robert Pruette (“Pruette Dec.”) ¶ 4). Deputy Pruette explained that he did not know why Ms. Ziccardi-Colson's record was sealed, only that it must be for some reason. (Id.). Mr. Turner testified that as a result of these background check issues, he denied Plaintiffs' membership application. (Turner Dec. ¶¶ 10-12).[3] Mr. Turner claims that he had never met or seen either Plaintiff before his denial of their application and did not know their race at that time. ...


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