Guns in Trunks and Tennessee Employment Law – Peterson White, LLP

Confusion was the order of the day in Tennessee for nearly two years as gun-rights advocates and many employers grappled over whether employers could enforce policies banning weapons in company parking areas. A new law has removed this ambiguity.

The Tennessee General Assembly first passed a bill in 2013 to allow employees a measure of protection against criminal prosecution for storing firearms in their cars over their employers’ objections. This has been colloquially referred to as the “Guns in trunks” law. Still, confusion remained about what impact this had on an employer’s right to discharge or otherwise discipline employees for violating company policies pertaining to firearms in parking lots.

The original 2013 law seemingly conflicted with an employer’s ability to enforce such policies banning firearms, but the law didn’t specifically address whether an employee who is terminated for violating the policy by storing a firearm in his or her vehicle in the employer’s parking lot would have a viable claim for wrongful termination.

Many proponents of the 2013 law asserted that it offered legal protection against wrongful termination; however, the issue remained muddled. In 2013, then Attorney General Bob Cooper opined that while “Guns in trunks” protected employees from criminal prosecution, it did not impact the employer/employee relationship, and that employers could accordingly still terminate employees for violating internal policies pertaining to firearms on company property. While opinions of the Tennessee Attorney General do not bind courts, they can certainly be persuasive. In the interim, both sides of the issue have vehemently advocated their respective positions, while also clamoring for clarification.

Senate Bill 1058, which passed the Senate by a 28 to 5 vote, and was later approved in the House by a 78 to 14 margin, amended T.C.A. Title 50 Chapter 1. Governor Haslam signed the bill into law on April 6, and on July 1, the new law took effect. The amendment provides the clarity both sides sought, even if the result favors one side over the other.

Guns-rights advocate have cause to rejoice, as the new law provides that employers, regardless of size, are prohibited from terminating or taking other adverse employment action against an employee solely on the basis of that employee storing a firearm or ammunition in his or her vehicle in the employer’s parking lot.

Under the new law, a discharged or otherwise disciplined employee can bring a cause of action against an employer to enjoin future acts violating the statute, and to recover monetary damages and reasonable attorney fees and costs. The employee has the burden of proving that the employer’s disciplinary action was based solely on the employee’s transporting or storing a firearm or firearm ammunition in the employer’s parking area in a manner consistent with present law.

If the employee satisfies that burden, the burden then shifts to the employer to present evidence that the disciplinary action arose from some other conduct or circumstances. If the employer produces such evidence in rebuttal, the burden of proof shifts back to the employee to demonstrate that the reason given by the employer was not the true reason for the disciplinary action. The statute of limitations for such an action is one year from the date of termination of employment, or the date of adverse employment action.

The general rule surrounding the employer/employee relationship in Tennessee is employment-at-will. Historically, Tennessee employers have operated with the freedom to terminate employees with or without cause, and with or without notice. “Guns in trunks” as recently amended, provides a sweeping exception to that rule, and only time will tell the extent to which it will reshape employer/employee dynamics.

Now, in today’s climate of frequent workplace violence incidents, employers are left wondering what preventative steps they can take. To be sure, employers generally can no longer discipline employees for storing firearms and ammunition in their trunks in compliance with the statute. Employers can, however, post notices prohibiting firearms on its premises, except where firearms are properly stored in compliance with the “Guns in trunks” law.