In a dispute pitting political speech against the authority of public agencies, in January the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that a sheriff could fire a deputy for refusing to make a contribution to the sheriff’s re-election campaign.
In a separate opinion, the court refused to determine whether non-deputy employees of a sheriff’s department also could be fired for not supporting the sheriff’s re-election.
Terri Young was hired by the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office as a deputy in 1990 and had worked her way up to captain by 2010. In June 2009, Daniel Bailey, the sheriff at the time, sent a letter to all deputies seeking contributions for his 2010 reelection campaign. Young didn’t make a donation. Soon after Bailey’s 2010 re-election, Young lost her job. Young sued, claiming that Bailey fired her because she did not donate to his campaign and that her termination violated state public policy and her free speech rights under the N.C. Constitution.
The N.C. Court of Appeals, following court precedents, issued a unanimous ruling against Young, but the N.C. Supreme Court accepted Young’s request to hear the case.
Public policy and free speech claims
Before the Supreme Court, Young repeated her claims that her discharge violated both public policy and her free speech rights.
North Carolina is an employment-at-will state, meaning that employers generally can let employees go at any time for any reason. There are a number of exceptions to this, including that a discharge may not violate the state’s public policy. The General Assembly has established a public policy that county employees should not be subject to certain types of political coercion, as Young argued was her situation: She said she lost her job because she did not make a contribution to her boss’s campaign.
The Supreme Court held that employees working for a sheriff are not county employees, even though sheriff’s offices get their funding from county taxes.
The court noted that the office of sheriff is defined in the state constitution, the General Assembly has recognized the unique nature of the position, and only a sheriff has the statutory authority to hire and fire employees.
“In light of the distinct demarcation between county government and the office of the sheriff, we conclude that a sheriff’s office is not a program or department of a county and agree with the consistent holdings of the Court of Appeals that a deputy sheriff or employee of a sheriff’s office is not a county employee,” wrote Justice Robert Edmunds for the high court.
Not a county program
“Because a sheriff’s office is not a program or department of a county, the fact that the sheriff’s office receives funds therefrom is of no moment.”
Young also argued that her discharge violated her free speech rights under the N.C. Constitution. The N.C. Supreme Court has held that free speech rights under the state constitution are very similar to those protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that “[a] state may not condition public employment on an employee’s exercise of his or her First Amendment rights.” This protection is not absolute, and does not apply if “the hiring authority can demonstrate that party affiliation is an appropriate requirement for the effective performance of the public office involved.”
“Deputies are a reflection of their sheriff. They serve as the alter egos of the sheriff and, if liability results from the acts of a deputy, the sheriff is held responsible,” wrote Edmunds in rejecting Young’s claim.
“After considering these statutory and decisional factors, we conclude that, by standing in the elected sheriff’s shoes, a deputy sheriff fills a role in which loyalty to the elected sheriff is necessary to ensure that the sheriff’s policies are carried out.”
Other fired employees
At the same time, the Supreme Court considered appeals from several other employees fired by Bailey, including Ivan McLaughlin. McLaughlin was not a sworn law enforcement officer, making his free speech argument different than Young’s.
The justices rejected McLaughlin’s claim for a separate reason. McLaughlin was terminated for violating departmental policies, so even though (like Young) he did not contribute to Bailey’s campaign, McLaughlin’s firing was backed up by a departmental review. The justices left for another day to decide whether non-deputy employees of a sheriff may be fired for their political speech.
The case involving Young is Young v. Bailey, (355PA14-2). The justices’ determination on McLaughlin’s claim is in a separate opinion, McLaughlin v. Bailey, (163A15).