A federal judge in Kentucky issued a significant decision yesterday regarding weapons policies in Kentucky and an employer’s right to regulate the possession of firearms in privately-owned vehicles on an employer’s property. Mullins v. Marathon Petroleum Co., LP, Case No. 0:12-CV-00108-HRW (E.D. Ky. Feb. 5, 2014).The facts of the case were straightforward and essentially undisputed. The employer’s weapons policy for its Kentucky facilities stated that employees were permitted to store weapons in their privately owned vehicles but only if certain administrative requirements were met. One of those requirements was that the employee disclose the weapon by completing an employer-provided “Weapons Approval Form” which would be kept on file with the employer.
A security contractor of the employer discovered that the plaintiff/employee had a rifle laying in plain view in the back seat of his privately-owned vehicle on the employer’s property. Because the employee had not completed the required Weapons Approval Form, he was disciplined under the employer’s policy. His discipline consisted of a one-day suspension and a formal written warning. The employee and his spouse filed suit against the employer asserting claims for, among other things, violations of KRS 237.106, KRS 527.020, and wrongful discipline based on public policy. The court rejected all of the plaintiffs’ claims.
KRS 237.106. The employee argued that the employer’s policy and his discipline under that policy violated KRS 237.106, which provides, in pertinent part:
(1) No person, including but not limited to an employer, who is the owner, lessee, or occupant of real property shall prohibit any person who is legally entitled to possess a firearm from possessing a firearm, part of a firearm, ammunition, or ammunition component in a vehicle on the property.
(4) An employer that fires, disciplines, demotes, or otherwise punishes an employee who is lawfully exercising a right guaranteed by this section and who is engaging in conduct in compliance with this statute shall be liable in civil damages. An employee may seek and the court shall grant an injunction against an employer who is violating the provisions of this section when it is found that the employee is in compliance with the provisions of this section.
The court noted that “[p]ursuant to the unambiguous wording of the statute, a cause of action will only lie under KRS 237.106 if an employer ‘prohibits’ employees from keeping weapons in their vehicle.” Mullins Slip Opinion at pp. 5-6. The court determined that the employer’s policy in this case clearly did not “prohibit” employees from keeping weapons in their vehicles; it simply required that employees disclose to the employer the existence of any such weapon in their vehicle. “As such, . . . this policy cannot be read to contravene KRS 237.106.” The court concluded that the plaintiffs misconstrued the statute by assuming that it applied to all forms of regulation, up to and including outright prohibition. “However, ‘prohibit’ is not synonymous with ‘regulate.’” Id. at p. 6 (citing Mitchell v. Univ. of Ky., 366 S.W.3d 895, 901 n.5 (Ky. 2012)). Because the employer’s policy did not violate KRS 237.106, the employer’s discipline of Mullins for violating that policy was not unlawful.
KRS 527.020. The court also rejected plaintiff’s claim under KRS 527.020(b), finding that this provision only applies to weapons concealed in an enclosed compartment of a vehicle, not laying in plain sight on the employee’s back seat. Mullins Slip Opinion at p. 7. The court stated that KRS 527.020 “does not create any substantive right with regard to a deadly weapon that is not concealed” even though the statute contains certain exceptions to what constitutes a “concealed weapon.” Id. at pp. 7-8. KRS 527.020(8) provides, in pertinent part:
A loaded or unloaded firearm or other deadly weapon shall not be deemed concealed on or about the person if it is located in any enclosed container, compartment, or storage space installed as original equipment in a motor vehicle by its manufacturer, including but not limited to a glove compartment, center console, or seat pocket, regardless of whether said enclosed container, storage space, or compartment is locked, unlocked, or does not have a locking mechanism. No person or organization, public or private, shall prohibit a person from keeping a loaded or unloaded firearm or ammunition, or both, or other deadly weapon in a vehicle in accordance with the provisions of this subsection. Any attempt by a person or organization, public or private, to violate the provisions of this subsection may be the subject of an action for appropriate relief or for damages in a Circuit Court or District Court of competent jurisdiction. This subsection shall not apply to any person prohibited from possessing a firearm pursuant to KRS 527.040.
The court held that the plaintiffs claims under 527.020(8) was foreclosed by the simple fact that his rifle was not concealed in any enclosed compartment but lying in plain sight on the back seat of his vehicle. Id. at p. 8.
Wrongful Discharge/Public Policy. The court also rejected the employee’s claim for wrongful discharge under the public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine. The Court held that plaintiff could not maintain a common-law wrongful discharge claim without establishing a violation of one or more Kentucky statutory provisions concerning employees’ firearm possession rights. The plaintiff had relied on the Kentucky Supreme Court’s decision in Mitchell v. University of Kentucky, 366 S.W.3d 895 (Ky. 2012). InMitchell, the Supreme Court recognized a claim fordischarging an employee in violation of Kentucky’s “strong public policy in favor of exempting a person’s vehicle from restrictions on the possession of deadly weapons.”Mitchell, 366 S.W.3d at 901. The Mitchell court explicitly determined that this public policy was expressed in the same statutes that the plaintiffs relied upon here – KRS 237.106 and 527.020. As the federal court in the instant case explained, however, “the Mitchell makes clear that a ‘public policy’ wrongful discharge claim requires the plaintiff to establish that the discharge violated the express terms of the statutes concerning the right to carry firearms.” The plaintiffs could not make this showing, because they could not establish the employer’s weapons policy in this case violated any Kentucky statute.
This decision is an encouraging development for Kentucky employers who wish to regulate firearms on their property and provides some additional clarity in this area.