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Evans v. International Paper Co.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

August 27, 2019

DEANNA EVANS, Plaintiff - Appellant,

          Argued: May 9, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, at Columbia. J. Michelle Childs, District Judge. (3:16-cv-01215-JMC)


          Shannon Marie Polvi, CROMER BABB PORTER & HICKS, LLC, Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellant.

          Kristin Starnes Gray, FORD & HARRISON LLP, Spartanburg, South Carolina, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Matthew J. Gilley, FORD & HARRISON LLP, Spartanburg, South Carolina, for Appellee.

          Before NIEMEYER, KEENAN, and QUATTLEBAUM, Circuit Judges.


         Alleging gender and race discrimination, Deanna Evans brought claims against International Paper Company ("IPC") under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e, et seq., ("Title VII") and the Equal Pay Act of 1963, 29 U.S.C. § 206(d) ("EPA"). Evans alleged: (1) hostile work environment based on race discrimination, (2) hostile work environment based on gender discrimination, (3) retaliation and (4) pay discrimination. After discovery, IPC moved for summary judgment. The district court concluded that Evans failed to create a genuine issue of material fact as to each of her claims. Evans now appeals that order granting summary judgment. After a de novo review of the record, we affirm.


         In 2007, Evans, an African American female with a chemical engineering degree and a masters in business administration, began work for IPC as a process engineer in its Mississippi plant. Evans received several promotions and recognitions while at IPC. In 2008, IPC promoted Evans to level two engineer. In 2009, Evans transferred to IPC's paper mill in Eastover, South Carolina (the "Eastover Mill").[1] In 2010, IPC promoted Evans to process manager. In 2013, IPC again promoted Evans, this time to a technical quality leader position.

         In addition to her promotions, IPC selected Evans to lead its successful effort to achieve ISO certifications for the Eastover Mill. Paul Varadi, the manager of the department that sponsored the ISO projects, and others praised Evans for her role in helping the mill obtain the ISO certifications. Varadi also thanked Evans for her good work throughout her employment at IPC.

         In January 2014, Evans received a "result exceeded commitment," the highest possible evaluation rating. Only a small percentage of Eastover employees received an "exceeds" rating.

         Evans also received two prestigious awards during her time at IPC. After being recommended by Varadi and others in IPC's management, IPC's Chief Executive Officer awarded Evans the prestigious Chairman's Coin award. Also, upon Varadi's recommendation, Evans received the Key Driver Award for extraordinary performance. IPC rarely gives these awards to employees early in their careers. IPC identified Evans as a potential leader in the company.

         But despite her successes, Evans experienced problems at IPC that she attributes to race and gender. A review of the record reveals these problems fall into two broad categories. First, Evans alleges she was mistreated in comparison to white, male employees. Second, she claims white, male co-workers made racially insensitive and offensive comments to her.

         We begin with the allegations of mistreatment. Shortly after her transfer to Eastover, Evans heard two employees say that they did not want her in Eastover and were forced to take her. After Evans returned from maternity leave, she learned from her supervisor at the time, Gary Nyman, that certain white, male employees had said they thought that they had run her off.

         Evans also claims Nyman criticized her managerial decisions and yelled at her on several occasions. Nyman's communications, Evans asserts, were always negative. Evans testified Nyman did not engage with her or give her leadership roles like he did with white, male employees. She also said Nyman frequently did not respond to her questions and proposals, and he helped white, male co-workers more than African American employees. When Evans told Nyman about mistreatment by other managers, he took no action despite acknowledging Evans was being targeted.[2]

         In 2014, one of IPC's customers under Evans' responsibility visited the Eastover Mill. Varadi, who was by this time Evans' supervisor, asked a white, male employee who reported to Evans, rather than Evans, to facilitate meetings with the customer and arrange for a group dinner. When Evans asked Varadi why she was not facilitating the visit, Varadi said he thought she was not available. After Evans raised her concerns, Varadi gave Evans a role in the meeting with the customer.

         In early 2015, Evans received her 2014 annual evaluation. In it, she received a "results met commitment" rating, the second-highest rating. Evans acknowledged that rating was considered "good" and understood that employees rarely received back to back "results exceeds" ratings. But she disagreed with Varadi's comment that "Deanna needs to continue to develop her interfacing and technical skills to be viewed as a reliable troubleshooting resource by the FP team[]" because Varadi did not provide specific examples. J.A. 380-81.

         Turning next to the complaints about racially insensitive comments, in 2012, a white, male employee said during a performance review meeting in which Evans participated that another African American female employee acted like she was "from a shoot em up, bang bang neighborhood." J.A. 163. Evans, offended by the comment, complained about the incident to Nyman, but he did nothing about it. Evans also spoke with IPC's human resources representative, Audrey Bright, about Nyman. Bright encouraged Evans to advise Nyman about her concerns and to contact her if she needed support.

         In 2015, a white co-employee told Evans that her natural hairstyle was unprofessional and nicknamed her Angela Davis, after the civil rights and Black Panther activist who he thought had a similar hairstyle to Evans. When Evans inquired about the nickname, the employee told her that Davis stirred up a lot of trouble. Varadi also said her hairstyle was not an appropriate hairstyle for the office.[3] And another white co-employee "said many comments about my hair texture. When I would wear my hair in different styles, as far as in braids, when I had to cut my hair, any style I had with my hair, he always had something to say, so it was continuous every hairstyle that I had." J.A. ...

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