Jones v. Town of Spring Lake, No. 5:18-CV-385-D

CourtUnited States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Eastern District of North Carolina
Writing for the CourtJAMES C. DEVER III United States District Judge
Docket NumberNo. 5:18-CV-385-D
PartiesSAMUEL JONES, Plaintiff, v. TOWN OF SPRING LAKE, Defendant.
Decision Date10 August 2020

SAMUEL JONES, Plaintiff,
v.
TOWN OF SPRING LAKE, Defendant.

No. 5:18-CV-385-D

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA WESTERN DIVISION

August 10, 2020


ORDER

On October 30, 2018, Samuel Jones ("Jones" or "plaintiff") filed an amended complaint against the Town of Spring Lake ("Spring Lake" or "defendant") [D.E. 14]. Jones alleges that Spring Lake created a hostile work environment because of his military service in violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, 38 U.S.C. § 4301 ("USERRA"), and that Spring Lake fired Jones both because of his political affiliation in violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and because of his military service in violation of USERRA. See id. On January 16, 2020, Spring Lake moved for summary judgment [D.E. 30] and filed a memorandum, statement of material facts, and appendix in support [D.E. 31, 32, 33]. On February 6, 2020, Jones responded [D.E. 35]. On February 20, 2020, Spring Lake replied [D.E. 37]. As explained below, the court grants Spring Lake's motion for summary judgment.

I.

Spring Lake is a town incorporated in Cumberland County, North Carolina.1 Spring Lake

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operates under the "Council-Manager" form of local government. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 160A-101(9); Dobbins Aff. [D.E. 33-1] ¶ 6; Gerald Aff. [D.E. 33-2] ¶ 5; O'Garra Aff. [D.E. 33-3] ¶ 5; Sutherland Aff. [D.E. 33-4] ¶ 5; Jackson Aff. [D.E. 33-5] ¶ 5.2 Under the Council-

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Manager system of government, the Spring Lake mayor presides at Board meetings. See Dobbins Aff. ¶¶ 6-7; O'Garra Aff. ¶¶ 3, 5; Sutherland Aff. ¶¶ 3, 5; Jackson Aff. ¶¶ 3, 5. The Board has five aldermen, who are elected in non-partisan elections, and the Mayor. See Dobbins Aff. ¶ 7; O'Garra Aff. ¶ 3; Sutherland Aff. ¶ 3; Jackson Aff. ¶ 3. James O'Garra ("O'Garra"), Sutherland, and Jackson were Board aldermen at all times relevant to this action. See O'Garra Aff. ¶ 2; Sutherland Aff. ¶ 2; Jackson Aff. ¶ 2. O'Garra is a retired United States Army aviator. See O'Garra Aff. ¶ 2.

The Board is responsible for, inter alia, establishing policies concerning Spring Lake services. See Dobbins Aff. ¶ 7; O'Garra Aff. ¶ 3; Sutherland Aff. ¶ 3; Jackson Aff. ¶ 3. Board actions require a majority of voting alderman. The Mayor votes only when needed to break a tie vote. No individual Board member has independent authority to act for the Board. See Dobbins Aff. ¶ 8; O'Garra Aff. ¶ 4; Sutherland Aff. ¶ 4; Jackson Aff. ¶ 4.

Spring Lake is located near Fort Bragg. Many active-duty and retired military personnel and their families live in Spring Lake. Spring Lake also employs many veterans. See Dobbins Aff. ¶ 32; Gerald Aff. ¶ 20; O'Garra Aff. ¶ 12; Sutherland Aff. ¶ 21; Jackson Aff. ¶ 21. Moreover, Spring Lake often honors active and former military members. See Dobbins Aff. ¶ 32; Gerald Aff. ¶ 20; O'Garra Aff. ¶ 12; Sutherland Aff. ¶ 21; Jackson Aff. ¶ 21. For example, the Board discussed renaming a local post office after Spring Lake resident and retired United States Army veteran Howard Pate Junior. See Dobbins Aff. ¶ 33. Additionally, the Board appoints a Spring Lake Military and Veterans Affairs Advisory Committee. See id. On February 12, 2018, the Board adopted

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amendments that committee proposed requiring that committee members have military backgrounds. See id. at ¶ 34. Spring Lake also conducts ceremonies for Memorial Day and Veterans Day. See [D.E. 33-9] 7-8.

On August 8, 2016, Spring Lake hired Jones as the director of its Recreation and Parks Department (the "Department"). See Ex. G [D.E. 33-7]; Jones Dep. [D.E. 33-8] 12. The Spring Lake Town Manager manages all government affairs, and is the sole individual with authority to hire and terminate the employment of Spring Lake department heads, including the director of the Recreation and Parks Department See Dobbins Aff. ¶¶ 6, 9-10; Gerald Aff. ¶¶ 3-5; O'Garra Aff. ¶¶ 6-7; Sutherland Aff. ¶¶ 6-7; Jackson Aff. ¶¶ 6-7. Daniel Gerald ("Gerald") served as Town Manager when Jones was hired and throughout Jones's employment. See Gerald Aff. ¶¶ 12.

Jones is a former military service member. See Jones Dep. at 3-4. As director of the Department, Jones was responsible for the multipurpose community center (the "community center"), park facilities, budgeting, and "inter-local agreements." See Dobbins Aff. ¶ 12; Gerald Aff. ¶ 12; O'Garra Aff. ¶ 9; Sutherland Aff. ¶ 9; Jackson Aff. ¶ 9. Additionally, Jones created and implemented policies, procedures, and operating standards concerning the Department, managed the Department's publicity, managed the Department's contractual obligations and budget, planned and coordinated the Department's programs, and developed the Department's "master plan." See Ex. I [D.E. 33-9] 6-7. Jones also attended and participated in Board meetings. For example, Jones recommended a person for appointment to the Recreation Advisory Committee. See Dobbins Aff. ¶ 12; Gerald Aff. ¶ 12; O'Garra Aff. ¶ 9; Sutherland Aff. ¶ 9; Jackson Aff. ¶ 9. Jones's actions as director of the Department affected how Spring Lake citizens viewed the Mayor. See Dobbins Aff. ¶ 12; Gerald Aff. ¶ 12; O'Garra Aff. ¶ 9; Sutherland Aff. ¶ 9; Jackson Aff. ¶ 9. Moreover, the Department director interacts with Spring Lake citizens more than other city department directors. See Rey Dep. [D.E. 33-10] 9.

When Jones began work as the Department director, Chris Rey ("Rey") was the Spring Lake

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Mayor. See Dobbins Aff. ¶ 3; O'Garra Aff. ¶ 13. In 2017, Rey did not run for reelection as mayor. See Dobbins Aff. ¶ 3; O'Garra Aff. ¶ 13. Following Rey's announcement that he would not seek reelection, Larry Dobbins ("Dobbins"), Chas Sampson ("Sampson"), and Terra Deloatch decided to run for Spring Lake Mayor. See O'Garra Aff. ¶ 13. Jones could not vote in the 2017 Spring Lake Mayoral election because he was not a Spring Lake resident, and Jones states that it did not matter to him which candidate became Spring Lake Mayor. See Jones Dep. at 25-26; O'Garra Aff. ¶ 14. Dobbins, O'Garra, and Gerald did not know whether Jones supported a particular candidate or political party. See Dobbins Aff. ¶ 31; Gerald Aff. ¶ 19; O'Garra Aff. ¶ 14; Gerald Dep. [D.E. 33-12] 8. Jones states that some members of the Spring Lake community thought he supported Sampson for Spring Lake Mayor because Jones and Sampson had a friendly relationship, they shared a common fraternity, and O'Garra showed Jones (and others) damaging information concerning Sampson's ex-wife. See Jones Dep. at 26-28, 39. Additionally, Jones perceived Dobbins as hostile to military employees because Dobbins stated that "we don't need folks collecting two checks" when discussing Jones's choice to hire former military service members. See id. at 25.

In November 2017, Dobbins was elected Spring Lake Mayor and was sworn in on December 11, 2017. See Dobbins Aff. ¶¶ 2, 13. At the swearing-in ceremony, Dobbins asked everyone in attendance, including "those . . . who did not vote for" him, to stand as a "show of unity," demonstrating that "together we stand" and that he would "serve each of you to the best of [his] ability." Id. at ¶ 13. Dobbins made similar statements following his swearing in as Spring Lake Mayor, including one meeting that Jones attended. See id. at ¶ 14; Jones Dep. at 25-26. Additionally, Jones perceived that Dobbins did not want Jones to hire individuals with military backgrounds because Dobbins asked Jones if a recent hire was a former military member. See Jones Dep. at 25. Spring Lake employees did not direct Jones to refrain from hiring former military members. Cf. id. at 41. Dobbins states that he did not have a anti-military bias. See Dobbins Aff. ¶ 35.

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On December 12, 2017, the Board held a meeting. See Dobbins Aff. ¶ 15; O'Garra Aff. ¶ 16; Sutherland Aff. ¶ 10; Jackson Aff. ¶ 10. Before the meeting, O'Garra made comments about "military guy[s]" to former Spring Lake Mayor Rey and told Rey that "[w]e'll never hire another military person again." Rey Dep. at 7, 15. At the meeting, the Board discussed Spring Lake's financial concerns, structuring the transition of the former Spring Lake Town Manager to the new Town Manager without an overlap in employment, and the costs of an inspector's contract. See Dobbins Aff. ¶ 15; O'Garra Aff. ¶ 16; Sutherland Aff. ¶ 10; Jackson Aff. ¶ 10. A Board member expressed concern that Spring Lake paid Jones and the assistant director of the Department $140,000 when both rarely worked and were rarely present. See Dobbins Aff. ¶ 15; O'Garra Aff. ¶ 16; Sutherland Aff. ¶ 10; Jackson Aff. ¶ 10. The Board then discussed several issues concerning operation of the Department. Specifically, the Board discussed the deteriorating quality of the community center, the decline in membership and attendance at the community center because of its hours of operation, that the community center was poorly staffed, that nonmembers were allowed to use the community center showers, that Spring Lake citizens were going to Fayetteville for services the Department should provide, and the Department's increase in expenditures and decrease in services. See Dobbins Aff. ¶¶ 16-22; O'Garra Aff. ¶¶ 17-23; Sutherland Aff. ¶¶ 11-17; Jackson Aff. ¶¶ 11-17.

By the December 12, 2017, Board meeting, O'Garra's and Jones's relationship had become strained. O'Garra operated a concession stand at the community center during youth sports events. See O'Garra Aff. ¶ 10. Jones knew that O'Garra operated the concession stand, and also knew that O'Garra stored the concession stand equipment in a community center closet. See id. At some point, Jones confronted O'Garra about his use of the community center closet. See id. In the confrontation, Jones stated that there was "no room in my storage room" for the concession stand. Id. (emphasis omitted). Jones also stated that O'Garra should give a percentage of profits from the concession stand to Spring Lake. See id....

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