WENTWORTH — Amy Simpson, the former senior deputy director of the Rockingham County Board of Elections, recently filed a federal lawsuit against the board and two of its members, alleging they violated her First Amendment rights and state law by firing her Sept. 29.
In Simpson’s complaint, made by her attorney Walter Horton of Winston-Salem in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, Simpson alleges she was wrongfully terminated after board members Toni Reece and Bonnie Purgason acted to have her ousted based on a private conversation Simpson had with her doctor about placement of a sign outside his office.
Simpson, who is seeking a jury trial, asks in the lawsuit for $100,000 in punitive damages, both from the board and from Reece and Purgason, $25,000 in compensatory wages for time she performed the duties of interim elections board director, reinstatement as senior deputy director of the elections board, and further damages to be awarded at the discretion of a jury, including legal costs.
A longtime county employee who had served in various jobs over the past 20 years, including interim Register of Deeds, Simpson was dismissed 10 months before she became eligible for full retirement benefits.
The lawsuit claims Simpson, during a visit to her physician, asked the doctor, "if a friend could put a sign up outside of his office …’’ He said, “yes,’’ the suit reads.
While Simpson's attorneys have not disclosed exactly what the sign said, they have said the sign was political.
Reece, the board’s secretary, and board member Purgason subsequently visited Simpson’s doctor to garner details about his conversation with Simpson, the lawsuit said. Reece and Purgason are Republicans and Simpson is unaffiliated. (See Correction at base of this story)
Reece and Purgason went on to question Simpson about her conversation with the doctor, and if she believed the exchange had been in violation of a N.C. Board of Elections law that prohibits BOE members from endorsing or speaking against political candidates, the lawsuit outlined.
Their questions came during a closed session of the RCBOE’s Sept. 29 meeting, the lawsuit said. According to the lawsuit, Simpson told Reece and Purgason that she did not believe she had violated the state statute which outlines that “individual expressions of opinion, support or opposition not intended for general public distribution’’ are not a violation of the law.
Shortly after the closed session, the board voted 4-1 to fire Simpson. RCBOE Chairman Royce Richardson was the only member to oppose the move.
Simpson’s lawsuit argues her discharge violated her First Amendment rights, punishing her for the private conversation with her physician, communication that was not intended for public distribution.
Simpson’s attorneys have notified the RCBOE of the lawsuit, and the board, Reece and Purgason have until Feb. 7 to respond in court to the complaint.
Board members could not comment on the pending lawsuit, according to Richardson and the board’s attorney could not be reached for comment.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Simpson was a member of the Democratic Party. She is unaffiliated.