Heggins’ discrimination lawsuit against former employer dismissed

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 5, 2018

Editor’s note: This story has been edited from the original to add information about prima facie evidence and make clear that Al Heggins filed the suit as a private citizen, not as mayor. 

SALISBURY — A federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Al Heggins — now the mayor of Salisbury — against her former employer, the city of High Point, has been dismissed because of a lack of sufficient evidence, according to a judge’s opinion.

When Heggins submitted the complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in July 2016, she said that being fired from her job as the city’s human relations director was a discriminatory and retaliatory act.

But Judge Catherine Eagles ruled that Heggins did not provide sufficient evidence to prove that her firing was racially motivated or retaliatory.

Heggins filed the suit as a private citizen, not as mayor of Salisbury. She was first elected in November 2017, well after she submitted her complaint.

In a previous interview on the matter, Heggins said the situation began in 2014 when she organized a series of community conversations called “Black and Blue.” They were meant to address concerns about a nationwide series of killings of unarmed people of color by police officers.

Participants in the conversations decided that High Point needed a citizens review board, and a public lecture was scheduled with an expert on the topic.

Heggins said that the expert, Barbara Lawrence, chose the wording of a flier that advertised the lecture — “Police Accountability and Citizen Oversight: A Framework for Dismantling White Supremacy and Establishing Real Justice in the 21st Century.”

That wording — particularly the use of the phrase “white supremacy” — drew complaints. Heggins was reprimanded by three High Point officials, Human Relations Director Angela Kirkwood, City Manager Greg Demko and Deputy City Manager Randy McCaslin.

According to Eagles’ opinion, Kirkwood explained to Heggins why the phrase “white supremacy” was offensivet. Some residents and city council members thought the phrasing implied that High Point police officers had white supremacist inclinations, and they objected to the city’s sponsorship of that idea.

Eagles’ opinion said Demko had a “corrective” interview with Heggins and that McCaslin gave her a verbal warning.

In May 2015, Heggins filed her first EEOC complaint against the city of High Point.

In the early summer, while the case was pending, Heggins said she “feared for [her] very life” and the life of a co-worker, Tony Lowe. The city put her on paid administrative leave while it investigated her fears. The investigation was eventually closed and Heggins returned to work.

About a month later, according to Eagles’ ruling, 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.”

McCaslin verbally warned her about “engaging in disruptive behavior” and asked her to remove the sign in her office because it created a “tense and uncomfortable work environment.”

About a month after that, according to Eagles’ opinion, a city council member accused Heggins of harassing him when he came out of a committee meeting. A major in the city’s police force also said Heggins had made public comments that could be “reasonably interpreted” as meaning that Demko condoned displays of swastikas.

Heggins denied both of those claims but was suspended for six days without pay in September 2015.

According to Eagles’ opinion, within 24 hours of returning to work, Heggins argued with Kirkwood and allegedly called her a liar.

In October 2015, McCaslin fired Heggins, citing “a pattern of inappropriate and discourteous behavior.”

The city provided documents backing up the assessment of Heggins’ behavior. Eagles said Heggins was unable to provide proof beyond “her own opinion that her conduct was not disruptive or inappropriate.”

“The issue is not whether the city’s reasons for firing Ms. Heggins were correct. Instead, the issue is whether the city’s reasons were not its true reasons but were a pretext for discrimination,” Eagles wrote in her opinion.

In a statement addressing Eagles’ ruling, Heggins said she has “no critique concerning Judge Eagles ruling” but that she disagrees with the “assessment of the facts of my case.”

“It is my firm belief that I should have an opportunity to have my case heard before a jury of my peers,” Heggins said.

Eagles wrote in her opinion that Heggins offered evidence sufficient to meet all three elements of prima facie in one of the three claims that she filed. 

The three claims that Heggins filed against the city were a First Amendment Retaliation Claim, a Title VII and Section 1983 Claims for Race Discrimination, and a Title VII Retaliation Claim.

Heggins offered sufficient prima facie evidence for the Title VII Retaliation Claim, Eagles wrote.

The case will not go to trial because Eagles granted a request by the city of High Point for a motion for summary judgment. That means that one party — in this case, the city of High Point — asks the court to rule that the other party has no case.

“While this is difficult, I am more concerned about the future of our city,” Heggins said. “My continuing focus will be improving the lives of our fellow Salisburians.”

Contact reporter Jessica Coates at 704-797-4222.