Listen to this post

In a decision that could trigger similar action in multiple states, the Fifth Circuit recently decided that an employee could bring a wrongful-termination claim in Mississippi after being terminated for having a gun in his truck, which was parked on company property.   Following the Mississippi Supreme Court’s decision on referral, the Fifth Circuit held that a Mississippi statute—which prohibits employers from establishing, maintaining, or enforcing policies that prohibit an employees from storing a firearm in a vehicle on company property and from taking action against an employee who violates that policy—creates an exception to the state’s employment-at-will doctrine.

The Fifth Circuit certified the question to the Mississippi Supreme Court based on lack of precedent.  The Mississippi Supreme court was very clear in its decision, holding that generally, an employer may discharge an employee for a “good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all[;]” however, an employer may not discharge an employee for a reason that is “independently declared legally impermissible.”  The court held that the employment-at-will doctrine “must yield to express legislative action”—i.e., the plain language of Mississippi Code § 45-9-55(1), which makes discharging an employee for storing a firearm inside his or her vehicle on company property legally impermissible.  The court also held that § 45-9-55(5) did not shield Aurora from civil liability.  The case is Swindol v. Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation.  The Mississippi Supreme Court’s opinion is available at 2016 WL 1165448, and the Fifth Circuit’s opinion is available at 2016 WL 419136

Like Mississippi, a number of states have laws that prohibit employers from establishing or enforcing a policy or rule that effectively prohibits a person from storing a firearm in a vehicle on company property.  These states include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin.  Swindol could impact employers in these states as employees seek to exercise their right to bear arms, even at work.

In Swindol, Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation (“Aurora”) discharged Robert Swindol for violating company policy after learning that he had a firearm locked inside his truck, which was parked on company property.  Mr. Swindol filed suit under state law for wrongful termination and defamation, arguing that Aurora’s policy ran afoul of a Mississippi law, Mississippi Code § 45-9-55(1), which prohibits “a public or private employer [from] establish[ing], maintain[ing], or enforc[ing] 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.”  The statute also protects employers from civil liability for “damages resulting from or arising out of an occurrence involving the transportation, storage, possession or use of a firearm”  § 45-9-55(5).  Aurora moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, arguing that Mr. Swindol’s claim did “not fit within any recognized exception to Mississippi’s employment at-will doctrine.”

The district court agreed and rejected Mr. Swindol’s argument that the court should create or find a public-policy exception to the employment-at-will doctrine based on Mississippi’s long-standing public policy of advancing the right of its citizens to bear arms.  The district court noted that the Mississippi Supreme Court had not weighed-in on whether § 45-9-55 could be read as creating such an exception to the employment-at-will doctrine.  The district court also noted that Mississippi courts for decades have been reluctant to expand the “narrow” and “specific” public-policy exceptions announced in McArn v. Allied Bruce-Terminix Co., 626 So. 2d 60 (Miss. 1993).

Mr. Swindol appealed.  Finding no controlling precedent on point, the Fifth Circuit certified the following question to the Mississippi Supreme Court: “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.”  As stated above, the Mississippi Supreme Court answered the question in the affirmative and explained that although the “[c]ourt zealously applies the employment-at-will doctrine, th[e] doctrine is not absolute.”  Based on the Mississippi Supreme Court’s opinion, the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of Mr. Swindol’s wrongful termination claim and held that Mr. Swindol stated a claim for wrongful termination under Mississippi law.

Even while evaluating workplace safety issues in the context of today’s headline news reports of gun violence, employers who operate in Mississippi, and in other states with similar laws should be mindful of such laws when crafting employment agreements, employment policies, and employee handbooks.  If you need assistance concerning these matters or with other state laws relating to employer-employee relations, please contact a member of Hunton & Williams LLP’s Labor & Employment Team.