Executive summary:  On March 23, 2015, members in both houses of the Tennessee General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to pass new employment protections for handgun owners. The bill creates a private right of action for any employee who is terminated solely for storing a firearm or ammunition in the employee's vehicle while parked in the employer's parking lot. This legislation, which now awaits the Governor's signature, represents yet another outgrowth of the controversial "Guns in Trunks" legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2013.

Legislative History:  In 2013, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a law banning property owners from prohibiting gun-carry permit holders from storing firearms and/or ammunition in the trucks or other locked areas of their vehicles while parked on their property. Shortly thereafter, the Tennessee Attorney General and Tennessee Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey issued competing opinions regarding whether that law created an employment-related protection for employees who chose to exercise their rights while parked on their employer's property. A bill introduced during last year's session that would have created such a protection was defeated after it failed to garner enough votes in the Senate. 

What the New Law Entails:  The bill passed this week by both houses creates a new section of Title 50, Chapter 1 of the Code. This is the same section that contains the Tennessee Public Protection Act—Tennessee's statutory cause of action for retaliatory discharge. The new section, Tenn. Code. Ann. § 50-1-312, would specifically provide that

no employer shall discharge or take any adverse employment action against an employee solely for transporting or storing a firearm or firearm ammunition in an employer parking area in a manner consistent with § 39-17-1313(a).

Employers should note that the new protection extends to any adverse employment actions such as discipline, demotion, and/or cuts in pay or status. However, the bill does contain some important limitations that employers should note. First, the proposed law does not protect handgun owners as a class. Rather, to obtain the law's protection, the employee must show that he/she is a handgun-carry permit holder and that he/she was properly storing the firearm and/or ammunition as required by law. Second, to prevail on a claim under the proposed law, an employee must show that his/her exercise of the right to transport and store firearms and ammunition was the sole cause for the adverse employment action. This is a heavy burden. Third, it is important to note that despite its employment protections, the proposed law specifically reserves the employer's right to prohibit firearms and ammunition from being carried on the employer's premises except when stored in parking areas consistent with the law.

The proposed law gives aggrieved employees the right to sue for injunctive relief and economic damages as well as for reasonable attorney fees and costs. Actions under the proposed law must be brought within one year of the adverse employment action and must be filed in the circuit or chancery court of the county where the alleged violation occurred. The McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting analysis will apply to causes of action asserted under the proposed law.

Employers' Bottom Line:

If enacted, the proposed law would create yet another consideration for employers when making tough decisions with regard to discipline and termination of employees. Employers should inform their frontline supervisors and managers of the new law and provide training regarding appropriate considerations when making employment-related decisions. As in any similar situation, it is always wise to conduct a thorough investigation of the facts and circumstances surrounding a policy violation or inappropriate conduct and consult with experienced employment counsel before acting.