Sunday, September 26, 2021

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Lawsuit claims candidate got her fired after being on opposing sides of protest

Part 1: A look at a major pending civil case lodged against one city council candidate

[Editor’s Note: This is the first of three stories in this week’s edition looking at the legal issues that various candidates for Burlington mayor and city council have faced.

[The Alamance News undertook the review as a part of its biennial election coverage. Burlington candidates have the earliest date with voters, a primary on October 5 which will allow voters to whittle the five candidates for mayor to the top two who will face off on November 2; similarly voters will choose among six city council candidates, winnowing that list to the top four from whom voters will choose the final two on November 2.

Note: the newspaper did not attempt to contact any of the 11 candidates individually, relying instead entirely on the public record information contained within each story.]

 

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One of the six candidates who will compete for two seats on the Burlington city council in the October 5 primary election is being sued for defamation and thousands of dollars in damages by a nurse who claims that the political newcomer conspired to get her fired from her job at Alamance Regional Medical Center in July 2020.

Jessica Michele Shoffner, of 3338 Golden Oaks Drive in Graham, has filed a lawsuit in Alamance County civil superior court, seeking thousands in damages against first-time office-seeker Dejuana Warren Bigelow, of 1710 Hanford Hills Road in Burlington. Shoffner claims that Bigelow concocted a “false narrative” about Shoffner being a racist and then orchestrated an online campaign to get her fired from her job as a nurse at ARMC, which is part of the Cone Health network.

In her lawsuit, Shoffner, who is white, adamantly denies having made the allegedly racist statements that Bigelow and her co-conspirators pressured executives, as well as Shoffner’s immediate supervisor, at Cone Health to fire her. Bigelow, who is black, remains employed at ARMC as a patient access specialist, according to the court file.

Bigelow describes herself as a community activist who has served on the Alamance Partnership for Children and a diversity council for Cone Health; she currently serves as a member of Burlington’s inaugural Community Police Advisory Team. Bigelow was appointed to the committee last fall to advise the city on potential policies and improvements for the Burlington police department.

Dejuana Warren Bigelow

Both Bigelow and Shoffner were employed at ARMC when they attended a protest and counter-protest at Court Square in downtown Graham on July 11, 2020. The protest was intended to persuade Alamance County’s commissioners to remove the Confederate monument at the north entrance to the county’s Historic Court House, according to the suit.

But the two women appeared to have been on opposing sides of the ongoing debate over the monument. Shoffner acknowledges that, during the July 11 “March for Justice & Community,” she had been standing beside a group of counter-protesters who, “like herself, opposed the call to remove the Confederate monument” at the county’s Historic Court House, the complaint states.

For her part, Bigelow describes her reason for attending as “to protest broader issues of systemic racism, of which the Confederate monument is one non-exhaustive example,” according to responses she provided for the first phase of discovery in the case.

Shoffner’s suit alleges that, two days later, Bigelow conceived and orchestrated a campaign on social media to get her fired from ARMC. “Motivated by her political views and racial animus and, without a factual basis,” Bigelow allegedly posted photos of Shoffner at the protest, which had been intended to depict the nurse as a racist, and circulated messages through Facebook to support her narrative, the lawsuit asserts. Shoffner contends that Bigelow not only intended to get her fired but also to punish her for her political views.

Bigelow allegedly began her smear campaign against Shoffner at 6:36 a.m. on July 13 of last year, by posting a photo of Shoffner at the protest on Facebook, with a message that stated: “My coworker was screaming she was a nurse at ARMC & she saves black [expletive] lives everyday [sic]! And maybe she ought to let us DIE!” Bigelow then posted two videos on Facebook, which she claimed would show Shoffner “driving around looking for black folk,” and later sent the photos and videos to the human resources department at ARMC.

The self-described community activist is alleged to have sent the human resources department, as well as Shoffner’s direct supervisor at ARMC, on July 13, along with an email in which she claimed to have “videos of your employee riding around town with her boyfriend, hunting for black folk, and recording themselves,” according to Shoffner’s suit.

Bigelow subsequently urged other Facebook users to contact Shoffner’s supervisors at ARMC to pressure them to fire her, according to the suit.

It worked. On July 14, 2020, ARMC posted a message on its Facebook page, stating that the nurse and one other employee (neither of whom were identified by name) had been fired.

Several other women who allegedly contacted ARMC in July 2020 at Bigelow’s urging are also listed as co-defendants in Shoffner’s suit. The court file identifies the other defendants as: Brittany Amanda Foust, 2303 Waterway Court, Graham; Nikita Reshay Briggs, 819 Rosenwald Street, Burlington; Tanishia Baldwin Fulp, 191 Sumter Court, Burlington; and Jennifer Mae Love, 498 Coronado Drive, Greensboro.

 

Swepsonville mayor also subpoenaed
Among a long list of individuals who have been subpoenaed to produce copies of correspondence with Bigelow is Swepsonville mayor Henry Carrouth of 1245 Pebble Drive in Graham. Carrouth, who is white, had been included in a chain of text messages, in which he asked Bigelow, “Have you heard anything from your attorney,” to which Bigelow responded, “I sent our investigator the letters.” Carrouth turned over copies of that exchange earlier this year, according to the court file.

Earlier this year, Carrouth emailed Constance Speight, who is the director of equity, diversion, and inclusion at Cone Health, outlining his concerns about the lawsuit. In addition to thanking Speight, who is black, for displaying a Black Lives Matter banner at Cone Health, Carrouth explained that it was his understanding that Bigelow had been “told by a friend that he overheard Shoffner…make racist comments” during the July 11, 2020 protest, and Bigelow posted that information on her Facebook page. After Shoffner filed the suit, Bigelow was advised by the mediator to hire an attorney but “doesn’t have the means to pay for the thousands of dollars she’s been told it will cost for the attorney,” Carrouth wrote in his email to Speight.

“Please understand that I have no expectation that Cone can come to the rescue of Dejuana,” Carrouth wrote in his February 26, 2021 email to Speight, who is black. “Rather than seeking justice and compensation for Shoffner, I believe the lawsuit is a deliberate and well-organized attempt to silence a leader in the black community. Please let me know if the situation warrants any conversation.”

Meanwhile, Shoffner’s attorney, Amiel Rossabi of Greensboro, has filed motions to compel the other defendants – as well as several other people with whom Bigelow apparently corresponded with at the time – to produce copies of Facebook messages and/or other documents related to the July 11, 2020 protest and subsequent smear campaign against his client. Rossabi contends that Bigelow falsely accused Shoffner of being a racist, and enlisted others to help her, “with the overall goal of causing [her] to lose her job, defame her, and otherwise punish [her] for holding different political views than those held by defendant Bigelow,” the lawsuit alleges.

Foust and Fulp allegedly contacted ARMC, as well as the North Carolina Board of Nursing, on July 13 and repeated the false statements that Bigelow contrived, according to Shoffner’s suit. Briggs is accused of emailing ARMC twice on the same date and repeating the “false statements” about Shoffner. Love allegedly emailed ARMC on July 13, and wrote, “outlandishly and utterly without factual basis, that [Shoffner] was also overheard screaming that she would shoot [racial epithet] and she was tired of saving [racial epithet] as***,” according to the lawsuit.

Although another Facebook user, Theresa Draughn of Burlington, had posted a “clarifying” message on Facebook, stating that it was someone near Shoffner, and not the nurse, who had uttered those statements, the defendants ignored that information, according to the court file.

Rossabi filed an amended complaint in July of this year, apparently to preserve the claims prior to the expiration of the statute of limitations. The lawsuit was originally filed last fall; and a hearing on several motions to compel production of documents for discovery had been scheduled for a hearing on Tuesday in Alamance County superior court, based on Rossabi’s motion to amend the original suit.

 

Mistaken identity for one defendant?
In the meantime, Foust (one of the four co-defendants) sent Shoffner a handwritten letter on July 27 of this year, explaining that she believed she was served with a summons by mistake because she had neither attended the protest nor corresponded with any of the alleged co-conspirators in Bigelow’s online smear campaign.

In her letter, Foust said that the summons appeared to be for another person with the same maiden name (Lynch), which she noted is an “extremely common” surname. Foust also told Shoffner that she not only didn’t attend the protest on July 11, 2020 but she doesn’t attend them in general “because I am afraid of what was done to you” and that she’s wary of “Facebook posts for the same reasons.”

Foust couldn’t remember for sure whether she’d seen the Facebook posts about her last year but remembered hearing about it at the time and thinking it didn’t make any sense that “someone would yell their place of work” during a protest, and she’d hoped ARMC wouldn’t fire someone without conducting a full investigation, according to her handwritten letter to Shoffner.

In addition to being fired from ARMC on July 13, 2020, Shoffner claims in her suit that Bigelow and the other defendants posted “knowingly false and defamatory words in order to cause pain, suffering, embarrassment, humiliation, and public ridicule” for Shoffner and to punish her for holding “non-racist political views.”

Bigelow’s actions, and those of the other defendants, have adversely affected Shoffner’s personal relationships with former co-workers, former patients, her “professional integrity” with ARMC and any future employers, and caused her to be threatened with physical harm, according to her suit.

Shoffner is requesting individual and joint awards for $25,000 in damages against Bigelow and her four co-defendants, under alleged claims of defamation and civil conspiracy. She is also seeking an award for more than $25,000 in punitive damages against Bigelow for actions that Shoffner contends “were outrageous and displayed a spirit of malice and should be punished,” according to her lawsuit.

Meanwhile, all of the defendants have been granted an extension of the deadline to file a response to the lawsuit, which is now set for September 30.

Shoffner remains licensed as a registered nurse, and she remains in good standing with the North Carolina Board of Nursing.

Documents on file in Alamance County’s civil courts division give no indication that Shoffner has filed a lawsuit against ARMC.

Bigelow had also been a defendant to at least four eviction proceedings filed in Alamance County small claims court between 2012 and 2016, in addition to being sued for an alleged debt in 2017, according to documents on file in the county’s civil courts division.

Burlington’s primary election is scheduled for Tuesday, October 5. Early voting for the primary election is scheduled to begin September 16 and end October 2. The general election for Burlington’s mayor and city council races is scheduled for November 2.


See other election-related coverage:

Part 2: A look at civil court cases involving other Burlington candidates: https://alamancenews.com/mayoral-candidate-has-faced-potential-foreclosures-current-mayor-notifies-estranged-wife-of-lien-against-her-vet-clinic/

Part 3: Some candidates have “criminal records,” most traffic-related:   https://alamancenews.com/some-candidates-have-criminal-records-most-traffic-related/

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