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Flynn v. Mid-Atlantic Maritime Academy, LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Norfolk Division

January 16, 2020

CHERYL A. FLYNN, Plaintiff,
v.
MID-ATLANTIC MARITIME ACADEMY, LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM FINAL ORDER

          REBECCA BEACH SMITH, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the court on the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendant Mid-Atlantic Maritime Academy, LLC ("MAMA") on March 5, 2019, and accompanying Memorandum in Support. ECF Nos. 15, 16. Plaintiff, Cheryl A. Flynn, filed a Memorandum in Opposition on March 26, 2019. ECF No. 33. MAMA filed a Reply on April 1, 2019. ECF No. 37.

         On April 5, 2019, this court referred the Motion for Summary Judgment to United States Magistrate Judge Lawrence R. Leonard, pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) (1) (B) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b), to conduct hearings, including evidentiary hearings, if necessary, and to submit to the undersigned district judge proposed findings of fact, if applicable, and recommendations for the disposition of the Motion for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 39.

         The Magistrate Judge filed the Report and Recommendation ("R&R") on July 30, 2019. ECF No. 56. The Magistrate Judge recommended that MAMA's Motion for Summary Judgment be granted and Plaintiff's Complaint be dismissed with prejudice. R&R at 1. By copy of the R&R, the parties were advised of their right to file written objections to the findings and recommendations made by the Magistrate Judge. See id. at 42. On August 27, 2019, Plaintiff filed Objections to the R&R, ECF No. 60, and MAMA filed a Response, ECF No. 61.

         I. LEGAL STANDARD

         Pursuant to Rule 72 (b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the court, having reviewed the record in its entirety, shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the R&R to which a party has "properly objected." Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3). The court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation of the Magistrate Judge, or recommit the matter to him with instructions. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         Objections, however, "must be made 'with sufficient specificity so as reasonably to alert the district court of the true ground of the objection.'" Scott v. Virginia Port Auth., No. 2:17cv176, 2018 WL 1508592 at *2 (E.D. Va. Mar. 27, 2018) (Jackson, J.) (quoting United States v. Midgette, 478 F.3d 616, 622 (4th Cir. 2007)). "General or conclusory objections are the equivalent of a waiver." Id.; see also Tyler v. Wates, 84 Fed.Appx. 289, 2 90 (4th Cir. 2003) (unpublished) ("A general objection to the entirety of the magistrate judge's report is tantamount to a failure to object.").

         Thus, absent a specific, proper objection, the court only reviews for clear error. See Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982); see also, e.g., United States Underwriters Ins. Co. v. ITG Dev. Grp., LLC, 294 F.Supp.3d 18, 23 (E.D.N.Y. 2018) ("The clear error standard also applies when a party makes only conclusory or general objections.").

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Hearsay Objection

         Plaintiff's first objection is that the R&R incorrectly held a statement that Mrs. Lee Goldman made regarding post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD") to be inadmissible hearsay. Objs. at 2, 17-19; R&R at 6 n.4. Plaintiff testified at her deposition that the statement is as follows: "[Mrs. Goldman] made a derogatory comment that people with PTSD are unstable and can't be trusted and we have to be leery of what they're carrying around." Flynn Dep. 231:1-3, ECF No. 33-4.

         Plaintiff is correct that this statement is not hearsay. Hearsay is "a statement that (1) the declarant does not make while testifying at the current trial or hearing; and (2) a party offers in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted in the statement." Fed.R.Evid. 801(c). Plaintiff, however, does not offer the statement to prove the truth of the matter asserted. "Flynn did not proffer Mrs. Goldman's statement to prove persons with PTSD are unstable or cannot be trusted. She proffered it to prove Mrs. Goldman's bias against persons with PTSD . . . ." Objs. at 18. Because Plaintiff does not offer the statement to prove that people with PTSD are unstable or cannot be trusted, it is not hearsay. See, e.g., United States v. Mitre, 132 Fed.Appx. 495, 497 (4th Cir. 2005) (unpublished) ("Because we conclude the testimony was not admitted to prove the truth of the matter asserted, we conclude it was not hearsay."). MAMA does not offer any persuasive argument to the contrary, other than claiming without support that the comment is "classic hearsay, for which there is no exception." Resp. at 12. Accordingly, the court GRANTS Plaintiff's objection to the extent she objects to the ruling that the statement is inadmissible hearsay.

         However, the court disagrees with Plaintiff's conclusion that this statement is evidence of direct discrimination or sufficient evidence to establish discrimination at the third step of the McDonnell Douglas framework. "Derogatory remarks" do not constitute direct evidence "unless [they] were related to the employment decision in question." Brinkley v. Harbour Recreation Club, 180 F.3d 598, 608 (4th Cir. 1999) (citation omitted), overruled on other grounds by Desert Palace, Inc. v. Costa, 539 U.S. 90, 101-02 (2003) . Furthermore, "in the absence of a clear nexus with the employment decision in question, the materiality of stray or isolated remarks is substantially reduced." Merritt v. Old Dominion Freight Line, Inc., 601 F.3d 289, 300 (4th Cir. 2010) .

         Here, Plaintiff has not demonstrated a connection between Mrs. Goldman's isolated statement and the decision to terminate her employment. Mrs. Goldman is the wife of Mr. Arthur Goldman, MAMA'S CEO. Goldman Dep. 6:5-11, 46:4-8, ECF No. 16-3. But she is not a MAMA employee. Nanartowich Dep. 77:6-8, ECF No. 33-3. And Plaintiff offers no evidence, other than her own speculation, that Mrs. Goldman influenced the termination decision or that this statement was in any way connected to the termination decision. Plaintiff's contention that Mrs. Goldman ''exercise[d] de facto control and influence[d] company affairs", Objs. at 3, is unsupported and not evidence that Mrs. Goldman influenced Plaintiff's termination decision. Accordingly, Mrs. Goldman's statement is not evidence of direct discrimination. See, e.g., Matias v. Elon Univ., 780 Fed.Appx. 28, 30 (4th Cir. 2019) (holding that a comment "though objectionable, was the type of isolated statement that does not amount to direct evidence of discrimination.").

         The comment is also not enough to meet Plaintiff's burden of producing sufficient evidence to show at the third step of the McDonnell Douglas burden shifting framework that MAMA intentionally discriminated against her. See Ennis v. Nat'1 Ass'n of Bus. & Educ. Radio, Inc., 53 F.3d 55, 58 (4th Cir. 1995) ("If the defendant meets this burden of production, the presumption created by the prima facie case Mrops out of the picture,' and the plaintiff bears the ultimate burden of proving that she has been the victim of intentional discrimination." (quoting St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 511 (1993))). Again, there is no evidence that Mrs. Goldman's statement affected the termination decision, and Mrs. Goldman is not a MAMA employee. Because Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate a connection between the statement and her termination, the statement is not sufficient to show that MAMA discriminated against her due to her disability. Accordingly, the court OVERRULES Plaintiff's objection to the extent it argues that Mrs. Goldman's statement is sufficient to show direct discrimination or meet the third step of the McDonnell Douglas framework.

         B. Remaining Objections

         Plaintiff's second objection is to the R&R's ultimate conclusion that Plaintiff failed "to demonstrate she has been the victim of intentional discrimination" and the recommendation that MAMA's Motion for Summary Judgment be dismissed. Objs. at 2 (quoting R&R at 41-42). As discussed above, objections to the R&R must be specific. Supra Part I. Unspecific objections are the "equivalent of a waiver." Scott, 2018 WL 1508592 at *2. However, the court will construe the arguments that Plaintiff makes in the ...


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