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Heggins v. City of High Point

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

December 20, 2017

ALVENA C. HEGGINS, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF HIGH POINT, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Catherine C. Eagles, District Judge.

         The plaintiff, Ms. Alvena Heggins, sued her former employer and supervisors, the City of High Point, City Manager Greg Demko, and Deputy City Manager Randy McCaslin, alleging that they violated her First Amendment rights, discriminated against her on the basis of race, and retaliated against her for participating in civil rights activities. Because Ms. Heggins' speech was not protected under the First Amendment and because she has not advanced evidence to support her Title VII or § 1983 claims, the Court will grant the defendants' motion for summary judgment.

         FACTS[1]

         Ms. Heggins was the Director of the Human Relations Department for the City of High Point until October 2015.[2] Doc. 31-8 at ¶ 3. Ms. Heggins is African-American. Mr. Demko, the City Manager, and Mr. McCaslin, the Deputy City Manager, are white. Doc. 31-8 at ¶ 4.

         The Human Relations Department worked to foster good relations between the City and its citizens. Doc. 28-9 at ¶ 3. Before the events leading to her firing, Ms. Heggins' job performance was satisfactory. Doc. 31-8 at ¶¶ 5-7.

         In late 2014 and early 2015, Ms. Heggins organized a series of forums designed to build trust between the black community and the City's police. Doc. 28-2 at 11-15, 53-55; Doc. 28-9 at ¶ 6. She planned these events, denominated as “Black and Blue Forums, ” as part of her work for the City. Doc. 28-2 at 11; Doc. 28-9 at ¶ 6.

         To promote the third Forum in March 2015, Ms. Heggins sent two emails, including an attached flyer, to a large listserv of recipients. Doc. 28-9 at ¶ 6; Doc. 28-2 at 100-08. The flyer described the event as: “Police Accountability & Citizen Oversight: A Framework for Dismantling White Supremacy and Establishing Real Justice in the 21st Century.” Doc. 28-2 at 104, 108. Other local institutions also co-sponsored the event. Doc. 31-8 at ¶ 9. Some City Council members and citizens interpreted the flyer as implying that the City's police force had a white supremacy problem and objected to the City's sponsorship of such an event. See Doc. 28-4 at 6-7.

         In the aftermath of this controversy, the City's African-American Human Resources Director, Ms. Angela Kirkwood, explained to Ms. Heggins why the term “white supremacy” was offensive in context. Doc. 28-9 at ¶ 7. Ms. Heggins also had a “corrective interview” with Mr. Demko. Doc. 31-8 at ¶ 16(b). Ultimately, Mr. McCaslin gave Ms. Heggins a verbal warning for her role in the Forum. Doc. 28-2 at 67-68; 109.[3]Shortly after this warning, Ms. Heggins filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charge in May 2015, alleging race discrimination and retaliation.[4] Doc. 28-9 at ¶ 9; Doc. 18 at ¶ 25.

         In the early summer, while the EEOC charge was pending, Ms. Heggins sent an email to Mr. Demko, Mr. McCaslin, and others stating that she was “in fear for [her] very life and the life of [her] coworker, Mr. Lowe[]” because of her work. Doc. 28-2 at 112-13 (Ms. Heggins' email). Although she mentioned no specific threat, the City investigated her fears and placed Ms. Heggins on paid administrative leave while the investigation was pending. Doc. 28-7 at ¶ 6. Ms. Heggins refused to talk to the investigator without her attorney, Doc. 28-2 at 111, the investigation was closed, and Ms. Heggins returned to work. See Doc. 28-7 at ¶ 6; Doc. 28-2 at 79-80.

         On July 27, 2015, Ms. Heggins wore a sign protesting discrimination and unfair treatment to a department head meeting and placed a similar sign in her department's office interior window. Doc. 28-2 at 86-87; Doc. 28-9 at ¶ 11, 31-2 at 5-6. Mr. McCaslin directed Ms. Heggins to take down the window sign because it created a “tense and uncomfortable work environment” and made other employees uneasy, Doc. 31-2 at 7; Doc. 28-9 at ¶ 11, and verbally warned her about engaging in disruptive conduct. Doc. 31-2 at 7 (memo documenting the verbal warning).

         In August 2015, a City Councilman complained that Ms. Heggins had accosted and harassed him when he came out of a Committee meeting, Doc 28-9 at ¶ 12, and a Major in the City's police force reported that Ms. Heggins had made public comments reasonably interpreted as accusing Mr. Demko of condoning displays of swastikas. Doc. 28-8 at ¶ 11; Doc. 28-8 at 11-12 (Major Steele's letter). Ms. Heggins contended then and now that she did not accost a City Councilman, disparage Mr. Demko, or otherwise act inappropriately. Doc. 31-3 at 28; Doc. 31-8 at ¶¶ 13, 15. After an investigation and because she had already been given two verbal warnings for similar behavior, Mr. McCaslin suspended Ms. Heggins for six days without pay in September 2015. Doc. 28-8 at ¶ 12; Doc. 28-8 at 14 (suspension letter); Doc. 28-9 at 7-8 (investigation summary).

         Within 24 hours of returning to work from this suspension, Ms. Heggins argued with the Human Resources Director, Ms. Kirkwood, about her work plan. Doc. 28-9 at ¶ 14. She also called Ms. Kirkwood a “liar” and questioned her work ethic. Id.

         In October 2015, Mr. McCaslin concluded that Ms. Heggins' pattern of inappropriate and discourteous behavior had not improved, and he fired her. Doc. 31-3 at 30 (termination letter); Doc 28-8 at ¶ 13. The City hired an African-American female, Ms. Fonta Dorely, to replace Ms. Heggins.[5] Doc. 28-7 at ¶ 7.

         After being fired, Ms. Heggins filed another EEOC charge, asserting only retaliation. Doc. 28-9 at ¶ 16.[6] She filed this action in July 2016. Doc. 1.

         ANALYSIS

         Summary judgment should be granted if the movant shows there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

         Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). The moving party has the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of any material issue of fact; once the moving party meets its initial burden, the non-moving party must come forward with evidentiary material demonstrating the existence of a genuine issue of material fact requiring a trial. Ruffin v. Shaw Indus., Inc., 149 F.3d 294, 300-01 (4th Cir. 1998) (per curiam) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-49 (1986).

         I. The First Amendment Retaliation Claim

         Ms. Heggins contends that the defendants retaliated against her for distributing the flyer, in violation of her First Amendment rights. Doc. 18 at ¶ 37; Doc. 31 at 17-18. She contends that she was first reprimanded and then terminated ...


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