Robert Swindol filed a lawsuit against Aurora after being fired for having a firearm in his vehicle in 2013. That lawsuit was dismissed. He has appealed. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
November 8, 2015 12:03:41 AM
The Mississippi Supreme Court may decide a Lowndes County case that could set precedent on whether a private employer can lawfully terminate an employee for storing a firearm in a locked vehicle on company property.
The only question is when, and Robert Swindol has been waiting for two years now.
A West Point native and Marine Corps veteran, Swindol began working at Aurora Flight Sciences as a sheet metal mechanic in March 2010. On May 31, 2013, Swindol was told by a co-worker that a human resources manager was photographing the inside of his truck, where an unloaded Markov 9mm pistol Swindol had painted for a friend was sitting in plain sight.
Swindol was called into a meeting with his human resources director and supervisor where he was fired, according to a federal lawsuit he filed in 2013. The suit states Swindol was unable to retain his personal belongings on his way out of the office and that after Swindol left, plant employees were called into a meeting where Swindol was labeled a "security risk."
David Butts, a Tupelo lawyer representing Swindol, said his client was unjustly fired and slandered. Butts is representing Swindol in the lawsuit that claims according to state law, Swindol was guaranteed the right to have a firearm in his vehicle.
"Understand, being labeled a security risk in the aerospace industry is a pretty serious thing," Butts said.
The stigma, Butts said, prevented his client from finding work in the industry he had been in for 15 years. Swindol, who operates The Elbow Room in downtown Columbus, is seeking $1 million in damages.
When he took the case in 2013, Butts thought state law would clearly side with his client.
Mississippi code 45-9-55 is the law Butts believes favors his client. It states, "a public or private employer may not establish, maintain or enforce any policy or rule that has the effect of prohibiting a person from transporting or storing a firearm in a locked vehicle in any parking lot, garage, or other designated parking area."
So long as the parking area is not gated or marked with a security checkpoint, Butts said the parking lot constitutes a public area and that under Mississippi's open-carry gun policies, the vehicle is an extension of a person's home.
Butts said as an "at-will" employment state, there are only two exceptions that constituted unlawful discharge in Mississippi: Asking an employee to commit an illegal act or an employee reporting an employer for committing an illegal act.
"So, essentially, we were asking the district court to create a third exception: where the employer violated a very specific and clear Mississippi state law," Butts explained.
Federal court, however, ruled in favor of Aurora's right to dismiss any employee at any time.
Butts brought the case before the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. But the Fifth Circuit said it could not decide if MS Code 49-9-55 constituted an exception to at-will employment firing without the Mississippi high court establishing a precedent.
The Fifth Circuit has submitted the following question to the state supreme court: "Whether in Mississippi an employer may be liable for a wrongful discharge of an employee for storing a firearm in a locked vehicle on company property in a manner that is consistent with Section 45-9-55."
Butts does not know when the state Supreme Court will rule on the case but the case has begun to garner some outside attention.
The National Rifle Association, in legal briefs, has aligned itself with Swindol.
Leaf River Cellulose, a fiber company in New Augusta, filed a brief siding with Aurora. Leaf River fired Joseph Parker for having a firearm in his vehicle in 2014. The district court sided with Leaf River. The case was also brought before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and has also been held in abeyance until the supreme court answers the third exception question.
Butts believes the state Supreme Court will side with Swindol because he feels the law exists expressly to defend this right in Mississippi. He said the court can decline to answer the question, but he thinks they'll eventually make a decision.
"How can you have a right and not a remedy?" Butts asked. "The law does not favor having a right being granted and not having a remedy if that right is violated."
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