Judge supports Welch’s decision to fire assistant for filing

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Rowan County Register of Deeds Harry Welch has the right to fire his former second-in-command for filing to run against him in the primary, according to a superior court judge.
Judge Mark Klass signed two documents Monday – one denying a preliminary injunction on behalf of Sandra Sims-Campbell against her firing and another granting Welch’s motion to dismiss the case.
Welch fired Sims-Campbell, his assistant register of deeds, on Feb. 28 after she told him she was running for the office’s top position.
Sims-Campbell then filed an injunction against Welch aimed at prohibiting him from firing her as a result of her “political activities,” and essentially running for his office.
Klass denied the injunction and then dismissed the case on the basis of Sims-Campbell’s “failing to state a claim.”
When reached for comment, Sims-Campbell directed the Post’s questions to her attorney, James Ferguson of Ferguson Chambers & Sumter law firm.
While Ferguson was unable to be reached Monday, Welch said he was is “very happy with the result.”
“My actions were not against Sandra Campbell. I would have dismissed any of my staff that wanted to run against me,” Welch said. “I believe any elected official would tell you the same thing, and, put in my position, would do what I did.”
Welch said he appreciated the judge’s ruling.
“I did what the North Carolina statutes allowed me to do,” Welch said. “I was not trying to be mean – I felt the staff would work better with only one candidate in the office.”
Welch’s attorney, Jim Morgan from Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice law firm, echoed his client’s sentiments.
“We’re happy with the judge’s decision. He got it exactly right,” Morgan said. “It is perfectly legal for (Welch) to fire his second-in-command for running against him.”
Sims-Campbell’s injunction entailed her termination was the result of her running against Welch and amounted to political coercion in county employment.
While there may be an employment-at-will doctrine in the state allowing an employee to be terminated for no reason, Sims-Campbell’s representation argued there can be no right to terminate such a contract for an unlawful reason or purpose that contravenes public policy.
In a memo from Sims-Campbell’s attorney, the former assistant register of deeds indicated she had suffered from Welch’s actions and has “alleged sufficient facts to state a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.”
Welch’s defense argued Sims-Campbell, as “second-in-command” in the register of deeds office, was trying to oust Welch from his position.
The action means Sims-Campbell would be Welch’s “avowed political enemy,” according to Welch’s motion for dismissal to the judge.
State law dictates a register of deeds has the exclusive right to hire and discharge all employees and appointees within his office, the defense argued.
Sims-Campbell was a “deputy” and “alter ego” of Welch, the defense stated, which means Welch can fire her for declaring herself a political enemy by running against him in an election.
“Running against an incumbent official necessarily involves implicit or explicit attacks on the incumbent’s record, experience, character, ethics (or) qualifications for office,” Morgan wrote. “Such is the nature of political campaigns. Moreover, the very act of running against an incumbent public officer is a direct attack on the officer and the officer’s livelihood, seeking to have the officer ousted from office and replaced by his opponent. Thus, the person seeking to have the officer ousted from office is necessarily the officer’s political enemy.”
The same thing happens in the sheriff’s or clerk of court’s office, Morgan wrote, which would be unmanageable if a register of deeds was forced to appoint or retain his political enemies as his assistant or deputy registers of deeds.
Sims-Campbell still may file an appeal, but needs to do so within about the next 30 days.