United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
ALVENA C. HEGGINS, Plaintiff,
CITY OF HIGH POINT, et al., Defendants.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Catherine C. Eagles, District Judge.
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.
Heggins was the Director of the Human Relations Department
for the City of High Point until October 2015. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.Shortly after this warning, Ms. Heggins
filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charge in
May 2015, alleging race discrimination and
retaliation. Doc. 28-9 at ¶ 9; Doc. 18 at ¶
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.
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).
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
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.
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. Doc. 28-7 at ¶ 7.
being fired, Ms. Heggins filed another EEOC charge, asserting
only retaliation. Doc. 28-9 at ¶ 16. She filed this
action in July 2016. Doc. 1.
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.
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,
The First Amendment Retaliation Claim
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