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Former Board of Elections member sues Rockingham County

In a complaint filed in Federal Court, Amy Simpson claimed the Board's decision to fire her violates the First Amendment and state law.

ROCKINGHAM COUNTY, N.C. — The drama continues in the Rockingham County Board of Elections. On December 9, former deputy director, Amy Simpson, filed a lawsuit against the Board. She claimed she was wrongfully terminated.

The situation at the Rockingham County Board of Elections has been tumultuous in 2020. The Board's director stepped down in March. The deputy director, Amy Simpson, took over those duties. With a depleted staff, the County brought a former Board of Elections member out of retirement to help out. In September, the Board voted to fire Simpson. In October, a polling place in Reidsville shut down because of coronavirus. On election day, another Board member announced his resignation.

The RCBOE voted to terminate Simpson on September 29. In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court, Simpson claims the decision was based on two board members' inquiry into a conversation she had with her doctor.

Simpson claims she asked the doctor, "if a friend could put a sign up outside of his office like you allowed me to do". The doctor said, "yes". Simpson's attorneys say the sign was political, but they did not discuss what the sign said.

Simpson's attorneys say Toni Reece, RCBOE Secretary, and Bonnie Purgason, RCBOE member, went to Simpson's doctor to ask about the conversation. Simpson says they brought it up with her asked during an Executive Session in the September 29 meeting.

Simpson claims Reece and Purgason asked her whether she thought the conversation with her doctor violated a North Carolina Board of Elections statute. The rule states Board of Elections members are prohibited from making statements for or against political candidates or referendums intended for public distribution. 

The rule goes on to specifically state, "Individual expressions of opinion, support, or opposition not intended for general public distribution shall not be deemed a violation of this Article."

Simpson said she did not believe the conversation violated the statewide rule, but moments later, in the same meeting, the RCBOE voted to fire her.

Royce Richardson was the only member who voted to keep Simpson on the Board.

In the months following, the Rockingham County Board of Elections faced several dilemmas, included a depleted staff and a series of coronavirus cases. It was enough to shutdown a polling place in Reidsville.

Simpson's attorneys say she reached out to the Board, offering to help. They say the Board did not respond, and brought in a different former Board member instead.

Simpson's attorneys, Cheryl Andrews and Walter Holton Jr., say they tried multiple times to contact the RCBOE before filing the lawsuit.

"From the beginning, we have been willing and the Rockingham County Board of Elections has refused to even return our phone calls. We maybe had one phone call returned along the way," said Holton, Simpson's attorney, "It's not a good way to resolve the situation, but when the other side doesn't talk to you, it's the only solution left."

In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, Simpson claimed the decision violated her First Amendment rights because the conversation with her doctor was private and not intended for public distribution.

To add insult to injury, Simpson said she was just 10 months away from receiving from being eligible for full County retirement benefits. Simpson has served Rockingham County for nearly 20 years.

"[Simpson] loves Rockingham County. She was a dedicated employee," said Holton, "She loved her job....She's had outstanding job performances everywhere she's worked."

In the lawsuit, Simpson asks the Court to declare her firing as a violation of her Constitutional Rights.

She asks to be reinstated as the deputy director of the Rockingham County Board of Elections.

She wants $100,000 in damages, paid jointly and severally, by Reece, Purgason and the RCBOE.

She wants $25,000 in damages from the RCBOE for her service as the interim director of the Board, a service she claims she was never properly compensated for.

Simpsons also requests any additional damages in an amount determined by the jury, plus recovery of all costs of filing the lawsuit and any attorney's fees. Simpson's attorneys say the County would be responsible for footing the bill, and the money would likely come out of taxpayer dollars.

Reece, Purgason and the RCBOE have been notified of the lawsuit. They haven't formally responded to the complaint in Court, but the deadline to do so is February 7.

WFMY News 2 reached out to the Rockingham County Board of Elections about the lawsuit. A temporary employee said the office was dealing with another round of coronavirus cases and no one was available to comment.

WFMY News 2 also contacted the attorney for the RCBOE and the members listed in the lawsuit. He declined provide any comment or statement.

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