As the number of states allowing weapons in the workplace increases (nine, at the present time), employers should be aware of court decisions related to those laws. Recently, the Supreme Court of Kentucky reversed a holding in which a lower court supported the firing of an anesthesia technician at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center (UKCMC). The technician was fired for having a loaded semi-automatic weapon in his car in the University’s parking lot, which was a violation of the University’s policies. In a holding that reversed that decision, the Kentucky Supreme Court found that the UKCMC had violated public policy when it fired the technician for exercising a right allowed to him under the state law. Mitchell v. University of Kentucky, Ky., No. 10-CI-00489, 4/26/12.
Michael Mitchell was employed on an at-will basis at UKMC while also attending the University as a graduate student. In 2009, Mitchell had a valid license to carry a concealed deadly weapon, pursuant to the applicable Kentucky state statute related to weapon licensing. In April of that year, certain co-workers of Mitchell’s became concerned that he may have had a firearm in his employee locker, and reported that suspicion to UKCMC management. The University’s police department was contacted and questioned Mitchell, who denied the allegation and gave permission for his locker to be searched. While no weapons were found in Mitchell’s locker, Mitchell also admitted that he had a firearm in his car, and tht the car was parked on University property. The University police escorted Mitchell to his car, where he showed to them the semiautomatic pistol, which was then confiscated by the officers pursuant to the University’s policy against possession of a deadly weapon on University property or while conducting University business. Mitchell’s employment was then terminated under the same policy.
Mitchell filed a lawsuit in Kentucky state court, alleging that his firing was in violation of public policy. While employment in Kentucky – as in most states – is “at-will,” there is a narrow “public policy” exception to that doctrine. That means that although an at-will employee may be fired for any reason or no reason, an employee cannot be fired if his or her firing would be contrary to a fundamental and well-defined public policy that is evidenced by an existing law or constitutional provision. In this case, Mitchell alleged that his firing was in contravention of Kentucky’s statute (KRS 527.020), one section of which states that “No person or organization, public or private, shall prohibit a person from keeping a firearm or ammunition, or both, or other deadly weapon in a glove compartment of a vehicle in accordance with the provisions of this [law].” Therefore, had Mitchell stored his gun in his car’s glove compartment, the University would have violated KRS 527.020(8) by firing Mitchell for that act.
However, as a further complication, Mitchell testified at his unemployment compensation hearing that his gun was stored in his car’s armrest, and not in the glove compartment, which would take him outside of KRS 527.020(8). To untangle this issue, the Kentucky Supreme Court then analyzed the case by factoring in KRS 237.110, which authorizes the issuance of “concealed carry” licenses. It also considered KRS 237.115, which specifically states that “Except as provided in KRS 527.020, nothing in KRS 237.110 shall be construed to limit, restrict, or prohibit in any manner the right of a college, university, or any postsecondary education facility . . . to control the possession of deadly weapons on any property owned or controlled by them . . . .”
In other words, a university typically would be allowed to limit the possession of firearms on campus. However, the court determined that this right is qualified by another section of KRS 527.020, at 527.020(4), which allows any person licensed to carry a concealed deadly weapon (as was Mitchell) to store such weapon, and ammunition “in his or her vehicle.” That section does not limit the protected storage area to the glove compartment. Therefore, KRS 527.020(4) forbids public and private organizations — including universities and hospitals — from prohibiting deadly weapons anywhere in a vehicle, if the weapon owner is licensed to carry a concealed weapon, as Mitchell was.
The Kentucky Supreme Court pointed out the circular nature of this group of statutes, each of which seems to refer back to another as controlling. To untangle this, it looked to the “strong public policy” expressed by the state’s General Assembly “in favor of exempting a person’s vehicle from restrictions on the possession of deadly weapons,” and found that UKCMC improperly prohibited Mitchell from keeping his gun in his car, based upon his license to carry a concealed weapon. The court therefore held that Mitchell’s termination was contrary to public policy.
Because this decision was based upon one court’s complicated and somewhat convoluted analysis of a group of possibly conflicting statutory provisions, it heightens the fact that employers must be knowledgeable about their particular state’s weapons laws and, when appropriate, should add their voices to bring legislators’ attention to possible conflicts between those statutes and issues of public safety, as in the circumstances of the university/hospital employer in this case.