by Robin Banck Taylor
On August 8, 2016, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recognized a new public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine, allowing a former employee to sue his employer for terminating his employment for legally storing a gun in his car on company property in a publicly-accessible parking area.
In Swindol v. Aurora Flight Sciences Corp., 832 F. 3d 492 (5th Cir. August 8, 2016), plaintiff Robert Swindol parked his car in the Aurora Flight Services parking lot with his firearm locked inside. When Aurora’s management learned that Swindol had the firearm in his car, they fired him for violating a company policy prohibiting firearms on company property. Also, the company held a meeting where the human resources manager informed employees that Swindol was a “security risk” and to call the police if he was sighted near the facility.
Swindol filed suit, claiming wrongful discharge and defamation. Mississippi has a little-known gun owners protection law that prohibits an employer from maintaining or enforcing a policy that prohibits a person from storing a firearm in a locked vehicle in any parking lot, garage, or other designated parking area open to the public: Mississippi Code Section 45-9-55(1). Swindol argued that he was wrongfully terminated because this statute prohibits enforcement of the Aurora company policy prohibiting firearms on company premises.
As there were no controlling precedents concerning whether this statute created an exception to the at-will employment doctrine, the Fifth Circuit certified the question to the Mississippi Supreme Court. In March of 2016, the Mississippi Supreme Court recognized that the statute creates an exception to the at-will employment doctrine. Following the Mississippi Supreme Court, the Fifth Circuit found that “Swindol [had] stated a claim for wrongful discharge under Mississippi law.”
This case serves as a general warning and reminder to employers to use caution when maintaining or enforcing policies contrary to state statutes. In particular, Mississippi employers may not discharge an employee for possessing a firearm in his or her personal locked vehicle in the absence of one of the exceptions noted in Mississippi Code Section 45-9-55. And considering that over 20 states have passed similar so-called “parking lot” or “guns in trunks” laws, at-will employers outside of Mississippi may also want to carefully consider the outcome in Swindol and any potential liabilities created by their own firearm policies.