Heard in the Court of Appeals: January 7, 2015.
Ferguson Chambers & Sumter, P.A., by Christina L. Trice and James E. Ferguson, II, for plaintiff-appellant.
Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, L.L.P., by James R. Morgan, Jr., for defendant-appellee.
DIETZ, Judge. Judges STEELMAN and INMAN concur.
Appeal by plaintiff from orders entered 3 June 2014 by Judge Mark E. Klass in Rowan County Superior Court,
No. 14 CVS 783.
This case requires us once again to delineate when certain government employees may be fired for political reasons. From 2010 to 2014, Defendant Harry L. Welch was the Rowan County Register of Deeds. In February 2014, Plaintiff Sandra Sims-Campbell, who was Welch's Assistant Register of Deeds and second-in-command in the office, announced her plan to run against Welch in the upcoming election. Shortly after that announcement, Welch fired Sims-Campbell. Sims-Campbell sued to challenge her termination. The trial court dismissed her case and she then appealed to this Court.
Government employees generally are protected from termination because of their political viewpoints. But this Court and various federal appeals courts repeatedly have held that deputy sheriffs and deputy clerks of court may be fired for political reasons such as supporting their elected boss's opponents during an election. See, e.g., Carter v. Marion, 183 N.C.App. 449, 645 S.E.2d 129 (2007); Jenkins v. Medford, 119 F.3d 1156 (4th Cir. 1997); Upton v. Thompson, 930 F.2d 1209 (7th Cir. 1991); Terry v. Cook, 866 F.2d 373 (11th Cir. 1989). This exception is necessary because these deputies are authorized to act on behalf of their elected superiors and their actions are binding on their bosses. It would be untenable if employees with these broad-ranging powers could not be terminated when they were also actively working to undermine their superiors for their own political gain.
Assistant registers of deeds have the same authority within their office as deputy sheriffs and deputy clerks of court do in theirs, including the authority to act on behalf of, and bind, their elected bosses. Indeed, the same sections of the General Statutes govern all three positions. Thus, we find our precedent
governing deputy sheriffs and deputy clerks of court controlling in this case. Under that precedent, county registers of deeds may fire their assistant registers of deeds for political reasons without violating the United States and North Carolina Constitutions or state ...