Tennessee Poised to Prohibit Employers From Disciplining Employees With Firearms in Vehicles

by Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.

On March 23, 2015, the Tennessee General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to end confusion surrounding Tennessee’s “Guns in Trunks” law. Tennessee has historically allowed property owners to prohibit firearms anywhere on their property—making it a crime for even a person with a valid handgun carry permit to carry a firearm on property the owner has posted as prohibiting firearms. In 2013, Tennessee enacted a statute, T.C.A. 39-17-1313(a), which decriminalized the actions of a person with a valid handgun permit that transported or stored firearms or ammunition in their personal vehicle in a parking area. As we reported in a January 22, 2014 article, confusion developed when the Tennessee Attorney General’s office and the General Assembly’s Office of Legal Services issued conflicting opinions as to whether the law also prohibited an employer from discharging or disciplining an employee for having a gun in his or her vehicle while the vehicle was parked at work.

The General Assembly has now added a new provision to Tennessee’s employment statutes that prohibits an employer from discharging an employee solely because that employee has a firearm or firearm ammunition stored in his or her vehicle while parked on the employer’s property (Tennessee law allows a person with a valid handgun permit to transport and store other lawful firearms, such as rifles and shotguns). According to the operative language in T.C.A. 50-1-312,

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.

Only employees with valid handgun carry permits who comply with the firearm storage requirements found in T.C.A. 39-17-1313(a) can take advantage of the new law’s protections.  Those requirements include: 1) that the employee have a valid handgun carry permit; 2) that the employee’s vehicle be parked in a location where it is permitted to be; and, 3) that the firearm or ammunition being transported or stored in the motor vehicle be kept from ordinary observation if the employee is in the vehicle or be kept from ordinary observation and locked within the trunk, glove box, or interior of the vehicle (or a container securely affixed to the vehicle), if the employee is not in the motor vehicle.

An employer may still: 1) discipline any employee for possessing a firearm anywhere on the employer’s property outside of the employee’s vehicle; 2) discipline any employee without a valid handgun permit for having a firearm or ammunition anywhere on the employer’s property, including in that employee’s vehicle; 3) ban firearms or ammunition from any company vehicles, including company vehicles operated by a valid permit holder; 4) prohibit nonemployees from possessing firearms or ammunition anywhere on the employer’s property (while it is not a crime for a visitor with a valid handgun permit to store a firearm in his or her vehicle, the new law does not prohibit property owners from banning such individuals from their property).

The new law allows an employee with a valid handgun permit to file a civil action against his or her employer if the employer discharges or takes other adverse employment actions against the employee. The employee must prove that the sole reason for the adverse employment action is because the employee was transporting or storing a firearm in his or her vehicle in the employer’s parking area. Employees may seek economic damages (but not punitive damages), attorneys’ fees, and injunctive relief against future actions in violation of the law. An employee has one year from the date of the adverse employment action to file a lawsuit in state court.

The new law applies to all employers in Tennessee, regardless of size. The new law does include a “safe harbor” against liability for employers according to which,

the presence of a firearm or ammunition within an employer’s parking area in accordance with § 39-17-1313 does not by itself constitute a failure by the employer to provide a safe workplace.

Employees also have a “safe harbor” that allows them to move the firearm to a secure storage place without violating the law in the event that the firearm is observed while it is being stored (for example, while the employee moves the firearm from his or her glove box to a locked trunk).

Governor Haslam has not expressly endorsed this bill, but he is expected to sign it into law.  Once signed, the law is scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2015. Assuming the law does become effective, employers with policies prohibiting firearms anywhere on their property should be prepared to revise such policies as of July 1, 2015 to allow for the narrow exception in this new law for valid permit holders to store firearms in their personal vehicles.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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