The Fifth Circuit held Monday, August 8, 2016, that employers who prohibit workers from storing guns in locked vehicles may be subject to wrongful discharge claims. The decision was based on the Mississippi Supreme Court’s interpretation of a Mississippi statute, but Texas employers should take note—Texas has the same statute, potentially resulting in the same holding.
Mississippi Sets the Stage
The Mississippi statute in question 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.” While the statutory language seems clear, what wasn’t clear was how the law would be enforced by the courts.
When a Mississippi man was fired for storing a gun in his locked car on company property, he sued his former employer for wrongful discharge. The district court dismissed his claim, holding that the statute does not create a cause of action for fired employees. The man appealed to the Fifth Circuit, which in turn certified this 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 consistent with [the statute].
The Mississippi high court answered that the statute created an exception to the at-will employment doctrine, akin to existing public policy exceptions. Based on that ruling, the Fifth Circuit held that the statute did create a cause of action for wrongful termination in Mississippi.
Looking Ahead in Texas
So why is this question of Mississippi law relevant to Texas employers? Texas Labor Code § 52.061 provides, in relevant part, that “[a] public or private employer may not prohibit an employee . . . from transporting or storing a firearm or ammunition the employee is authorized by law to possess in a locked, privately owned motor vehicle in a parking lot, parking garage, or other parking area the employer provides for employees.” This language is nearly identical to the Mississippi statute.
The Texas Supreme Court has not yet addressed this question under Texas law, but it could reach the same conclusion as the Mississippi Supreme Court. As such, employers in Texas should review their policies to ensure that firearm storage is permitted as allowed under applicable law. Note that the Texas statute contains a number of exceptions where firearm storage may be prohibited, such as vehicles owned by the employer and vehicles parked at schools or hazardous chemical sites. However, before setting company policies, be sure to check whether an exception applies.
You may also want to read our previous Texas Open Carry blog post to see what else employers need to know about Texas gun laws.