The N.C. Supreme Court on Friday ruled in favor of former Mecklenburg County Sheriff Chipp Bailey after four deputies filed a trio of lawsuits claiming they were fired because they did not contribute to his re-election campaign.
The state’s highest court last month heard arguments in the case – the result of a series of accusations from Ivan McLaughlin, Timothy Stanley, Justin Lloyd and Terri Young, who said in court documents they were wrongfully terminated after Bailey’s victory in 2010.
Bailey, a Democrat, was running his first campaign for sheriff after he was appointed to the role in 2008 to replace Jim Pendergraph. He didn’t run again in 2014 and ended 20 years with the Sheriff’s Office. Young and McLaughlin, who was a detention center officer and not a sworn deputy, were Republicans.
The legal conflict raised questions about the extent to which sheriffs can fire their employees at will even if those workers are on the county payroll. The Supreme Court gave an answer Friday when it affirmed that sheriffs are constitutional officers with exclusive authority over their employees.
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“We felt like we made the right decisions when we made them,” Bailey said, referring to the firings.
This fight will continue ... we will take this matter to the North Carolina legislature to be corrected.
Winston-Salem attorney Harvey Kennedy
Lawyers for the deputies rebuffed the Supreme Court’s decision and said the opinion makes it legal for sheriffs to fire deputies for their political affiliation or refusal to donate to a sheriff’s campaign.
“This fight will continue,” Winston-Salem attorney Harvey Kennedy said in a statement. “We will take this matter to the North Carolina legislature to be corrected.”
He adds: “Our clients … all had outstanding annual evaluations for years. They never expected their careers to end because they refused to make political contributions to the sheriff’s campaign.”
Bailey would not elaborate on what led him to fire all four deputies, saying it remains a personnel matter. He did say, “it all related back to agency and policy regulations.”
“These folks did not follow the rules and regulations of the office for the most part,” he said. “I never took terminations lightly.”
Bailey reiterated that he did not monitor which employees gave to his campaign nor track their party affiliations.
“I had 1,300 employees,” he said. “I can assure you, 1,300 employees didn’t donate to that campaign. I guarantee you that everybody in that agency didn’t vote for me.”
More than a year before the 2010 election, Bailey got the addresses of all 1,350 employees of his department and sent each a letter on his campaign’s letterhead asking for contributions, according to court documents. Bailey’s attorneys said the sheriff didn’t keep track of who donated or volunteered to work on his campaign.
But the fired deputies said Bailey’s lieutenants prodded employees to show support, and they should have been shielded from termination because the county funds the Sheriff’s Office.
Bailey’s attorney and an insurance company argued that was irrelevant, and said the deputies were not protected from political coercion because they’re not county employees and don’t work for a county department.
The Supreme Court agreed, writing in tits ruling Friday that funding does not mean the Sheriff’s Office is considered a county department.
“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,” justices wrote.
The Associated Press contributed.