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MEC, Manufacturers Association, Municipal League fear breach of fire-at-will doctrine

By TED CARTER

The Mississippi Supreme Court would deal a “devastating blow” to the state’s 150-year-old at-will employment doctrine by sticking to a March ruling that a worker should not have been fired for having a firearm in a locked vehicle at work.

Those are the stakes as seen by the Mississippi Economic Council, the Mississippi Manufacturers Association and the Mississippi Municipal League in a friend-of-the-court brief urging the state Supreme Court to reconsider its March ruling in Swindol v. Aurora Flight Sciences.

» READ MORE: State’s at-will employment doctrine vulnerable in gun lawsuit

In answering a question from the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Mississippi’s highest court said a 2006 statute allows workers to have guns in their locked vehicles if the company lot is not secured by a gate, guards, fence or other means.

“While Mississippi is an at-will employment state, that doctrine is not absolute,” the court said in its March 23 reply.

“The court has been clear that the legislature has the authority to create new exceptions” to the fire-at-will doctrine, the court said.

That finding is expected to be a key factor as the federal courts decide whether Robert Swindol was unjustifiably fired in May 2013 for leaving a gun in his locked car at work.

Mississippi’s businesses will be hurt unless the Supreme Court reverses its unanimous nine-justice ruling, wrote Rueben V. Anderson of Phelps Dunbar in an amicus brief on behalf of the Mississippi Economic Council (the state’s Chamber of Commerce), the Mississippi Manufacturers Association and the Mississippi Municipal League.

The court, Anderson said, will have dealt “a devastating blow to Mississippi’s longstanding adherence to the at-will employment doctrine and produce a flood of litigation in the state court system.”

The National Rifle Association filed an amicus brief as well. It urged the state high court to keep intact the March ruling that found the state’s 2006 expansion of gun rights trumped the at-will employment doctrine.

Longtime Tupelo trial lawyer David O. Butts Jr., who represents Swindol, said the business organizations and the Municipal League “didn’t identify any particular hazard that I could see.”

Instead, “it was just a blanket statement that this was a sea change in the law,” Butts said, characterizing their filing as “Chicken Little and the sky is falling.”

The statute, he said, “is very clear that an employee has a right to have a gun in his car as long as the parking area is open and available to the public.”

He said he thinks it would be “very unusual” for the Supreme Court to reverse itself, especially in light of the unanimous support it gave the March ruling.

Legislators enacted the 2006 law to protect workers from workplace dangers, said Butt, who traces the law to the July 2003 shooting on the floor of the Lockheed Martin plant in Meridian. An angry assembly-line worker used a shotgun to shoot 14 of his co-workers, killing six of them before committing suicide.

The legislature reasoned that had the employees at the plant been allowed to have firearms in their cars, they possibly could have got to their cars, got their weapons and defended themselves, Butts said.

“The statute was geared to workplace safety,” he added.

Swindol’s trouble with his supervisors at the Columbus plant of Aurora Flight Sciences, a drone maker headquartered in Virginia, began when he left a firearm in his locked car in the company parking lot. He had a side job doing specialty painting of gun stocks. The gun left in the car belonged to one of his customers, according to Butts.

“Some employees there at Aurora reported it,” Butts said. “That triggered the whole thing.”

Once inside the plant, Swindol got a call to report to Human Resources,. “He was summarily fired,” Butts said. “There were sheriff’s deputies there as well.”

What happened next is the subject of a defamation claim.

Aurora’s management called the workers together and announced Swindol had been fired and was a security risk. From that day in 2013 to today Swindol been unable to work in the defense industry in his specialty as a materials fabricator, according to Butts, who said his client is a military veteran and former Euro Copter employee.

“These companies are defense contractors,” Butts said. “Once you are labeled as a security risk and word gets out on you in that industry, you don’t get a job.”

Aurora accused Swindol of being a security risk “without foundation,” he said, explaining why he is seeking punitive damages.

Chief Judge Sharion Aycock of the Northern District of Mississippi dismissed Swindol’s wrongful termination and slander complaints in  2014. Butts appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit in New Orleans.

He said unless the Mississippi Supreme Court changes its March ruling, the case will go back to Aycock, whose new ruling must be guided by the state high court’s ruling.’

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About Ted Carter

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