Terminated for Storing Firearm in Vehicle While at Work, You May Have a Wrongful Discharge Claim

By | September 4, 2017

Beginning September 1, 2017, Texas made it easier for individuals to purchase and renew their license to carry a firearm by lowering the costs associated with the license.  Passed in May 2017, Senate Bill 16 reduces the price for applying for a license to carry from $140 to $40.  It also cut the renewal costs from $70 to $40.  This bill may increase the number of employees who purchase, carry and store a handgun, especially while on an employer’s premises.

In fact, did you owe a firearm? Did you store it in your vehicle while at work? Did your employer terminated you for doing so? If you answered yes to the above-questions, you may have a claim for wrongful discharge under state law. This is because under Texas law an employer may not prohibit employees from storing lawfully possessed firearms and ammunition in vehicles parked in the employer’s parking lot (or garage or other lot provided by the employer).  The owner of a firearm or ammunition is permitted to store those items in a locked, privately owned car as long as the possessor holds a concealed handgun license.

In Swindol v. Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court decision dismissing an employee’s wrongful discharge lawsuit against his employer who terminated him for keeping a firearm locked inside his car in violation of company policy.  The Fifth Circuit held that Mississippi state law created an exception to the employment-at-will doctrine; thus, making employers liable for terminating employees who comply with the law.

Background

Robert Swindol worked for Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation in Columbus, Mississippi.  In May 2013, he parked his truck in Aurora’s employee parking lot with his firearm locked inside.  Aurora’s management learned of the firearm and fired Swindol later that day for violating company policy prohibiting firearms on its property.  Aurora’s human resources manager then held a plant-wide meeting to inform employees that Swindol was a “security risk” and that they should call 9-1-1 if he was seen near Aurora’s facility.

Swindol filed suit against Aurora, seeking damages for wrongful discharge and defamation under state law. On Aurora’s motion, the district court dismissed Swindol’s wrongful discharge claim with prejudice and the defamation claim without prejudice. Swindol appealed.

The Fifth Circuit’s Decision

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals asked the Mississippi Supreme Court to determine, “Whether in Mississippi an employer may be liable for a wrongful discharge of an employee for storing a firearm in a locked vehicle on company property in a manner that is consistent with Section 45-9-55?”

Section 45-9-55 provides that a public or private employer may not establish, maintain, or enforce any policy or rule that has the effect of prohibiting a person from transporting or storing a firearm in a locked vehicle in any parking lot, parking garage, or other designated parking area.  Miss. Code. Ann. § 45-9-55(1).

Swindol argued that Aurora wrongfully terminated him for keeping a firearm locked inside his car in violation of company policy. He alleged his action was protected by Section 45-9-55. Aurora responded that Swindol could not assert a wrongful discharge because Section 45-9-55 did not create an exception to the employment-at-will doctrine.  The Mississippi court disagreed and responded to the Fifth Circuit’s certified question by holding that the statute could make an employer liable for wrongful discharge. The court explained that Section 45-9-55 constituted “express legislative action” that made terminating an employee for having a firearm inside his locked vehicle on company property “legally impermissible.” The court for the first time recognized a statutory exception to the employment-at-will doctrine, which Texas also recognizes.

Applying the court’s reasoning, the Fifth Circuit reversed the dismissal of the wrongful discharge claim, and remanded the claim for further proceedings.

Key Takeaways

Although the Fifth Circuit dealt with Mississippi state law, that law is similar to the one in Texas.  Employees should check their employer’s policies pertaining to the storage of firearms on its premises, particularly its parking lot.  If you have been terminated for violating such policy, give Law JBH a call at 210-504-8619 to see what rights you may have.