Earlier this week, the Tennessee General Assembly's Office of Legal Services opined that the "Guns in Parking Lots" law "effectively prohibits" employers from discharging an employee for conduct allowed by that law. According to the Office, employers that discharge an at-will employee because of his or her compliance with the "Guns in Parking Lots" law could be liable for retaliatory or wrongful discharge. This opinion directly contradicts the conclusion reached by the Tennessee Attorney General. The Office's opinion underscores the need for employers to exercise caution when taking an adverse action against an employee who complies with the "Guns in Parking Lots" law and to reexamine their current weapons policies to ensure that they are legally compliant.
We have previously written about the "Guns in Parking Lots" law, which became effective July 1, 2013. (Read our original update here). The law basically allows handgun carry permit holders to transport and store firearms and ammunition in their vehicles, as long as they do so in compliance with the law. The law amends only the State's criminal law, and does not expressly prohibit disciplining or discharging an employee who complies with the law. Much of the original discussion therefore centered on the employment law ramifications—specifically whether employers could be liable for retaliation or wrongful discharge for disciplining or discharging an employee who transported or stored a firearm or ammunition in compliance with the law.
Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey and several members of the Senate nevertheless concluded that discharging an at-will employee who complies with the "Guns in Parking Lots" law could subject the employer to a retaliatory discharge lawsuit. They included a letter in the Senate Journal to this effect, stating that "employers who terminate employees just for exercising this right may violate the state's clear public policy that handgun carry permit holders are allowed to transport and store firearms or ammunition under the described circumstances."
But, in an opinion issued on May 28, 2013, Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper disagreed with Lieutenant Governor Ramsey's explanation of the law. (Read our post about that opinion here). The Attorney General determined that the law "only decriminalized the carrying and storage of firearms and firearm ammunition in a permit holder's privately owned motor vehicle in public and private parking areas under defined circumstances." The Attorney General concluded that the law "does not address or alter the employer/employee relationship or prohibit an employer from terminating an employee for possessing a firearm or firearm ammunition on the employer's property."
In the recently issued opinion, the Office of Legal Services reached the opposite conclusion. The Office reasoned that allowing an employer to discharge an employee for possessing a firearm in compliance with the law would effectively allow employers to prohibit the possession of firearms, which contradicts the law's plain language. The Office therefore concluded that an employer would be subject to a retaliatory or wrongful discharge claim for discharging an employee because of possession of a firearm or ammunition in compliance with the law. In this regard, the Office essentially determined that the law creates another public policy exception to the State's longstanding at-will employment rule.
The Office's opinion is not the last word in an ongoing debate that will keep employers in the middle of this crossfire. The uncertainty likely will continue until the courts are asked to construe the law.