Executive summary: Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has signed legislation providing new employment protections for handgun owners. As discussed in more detail in our March 25, 2015 Alert, the new law 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. The law represents yet another outgrowth of the controversial "Guns in Trunks" legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2013.
The new law creates a new section in the Tennessee Code that contains Tennessee's statutory cause of action for retaliatory discharge. The new section, Tenn. Code. Ann. § 50-1-312, provides 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 new 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 new 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 new 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 new 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 new 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 new law.
Employers' Bottom Line:
The new law creates 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.