United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Southern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT
HUNTINGTON INGALLS INCORPORATED'S MOTION  FOR SUMMARY
SULEYMAN OZERDEN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
THE COURT is Defendant Huntington Ingalls Incorporated's
Motion  for Summary Judgment. This Motion is fully
briefed. After review of the Motion, the Response, the
related pleadings, the record as a whole, and relevant legal
authority, the Court finds that Defendant Huntington Ingalls
Incorporated's Motion  should be denied.
dispute in this case is whether Defendant Huntington Ingalls
Incorporated (“Ingalls”) wrongfully terminated
Plaintiff Charles Philip Smith (“Smith”) for what
Ingalls claims were violations of its security protocol
prohibiting its employees from having “firearms and all
other weapons on company premises, including its parking
lots.” Mem. in Supp.  at 1.
matter arises out of the May 2, 2016, discovery of “two
speed loaders” in Smith's van while it was parked
in one of Ingalls' parking lots at the shipyard in
Pascagoula, Mississippi. Security Report [67-8] at 1-2.
Smith's shift began at 2:00 p.m. that day and would have
ended at 9:00 p.m. Smith Dep. [70-2] at 7.
to Ingalls security officer Shaun Blaine
(“Blaine”), around 9:00 p.m. that evening he was
making rounds checking the “red zone parking lot”
with a flashlight, when he observed “two speed loaders
for a revolver” in plain view inside Smith's van.
Security Report [67-8] at 1-2. Blaine notified his
supervisor, Captain Alfred Lewis, who joined him at the scene
and confirmed the presence of the speed loaders. Id.
Captain Lewis radioed for backup and for a check of the
vehicle's tag, which resulted in Smith being identified
as the owner. Id. Officers James Cosman
(“Cosman”) and Jonathan Daffron
(“Daffron”) were dispatched to retrieve Smith and
escort him to his vehicle so that a thorough search could be
conducted in Smith's presence. Id.
Smith arrived, he unlocked his van and Cosman and Daffron
searched for any contraband prohibited under Ingalls'
policy. Id. In addition to the two speed loaders,
which were filled with hollow point bullets, a revolver
loaded with five rounds of hollow point bullets was also
discovered. Id. Another item located during the
search was identified by Ingalls as a “Billy club/pipe,
” id., but Smith maintains it was simply a
“tire checker, ” Smith Depo. [70-2] at 3. The
retrieved items were placed on the hood of the Smith's
van, photographed, and then returned to the rear of the van,
out of Smith's reach. Security Report [67-8] at 1-2.
Smith was instructed to leave the premises and not to return
until directed to do so by Ingalls' Labor Relations
9, 2016, Smith was asked to return to Ingalls to meet with
Lance Eubanks (“Eubanks”), a labor relations
representative. Eubanks Decl. [67-12] at 1-2. Prior to
attending the meeting with Eubanks, Smith met with his union
representative, J.D. Mergenshroer, and gave him a copy of the
Mississippi Supreme Court's decision in Swindol v.
Aurora Flight Sciences Corp., 194 So.3d 847 (Miss.
2016). Mergenshroer Dep. [70-12] at 3. When Smith and
Mergenshroer met with Eubanks, Mergenshroer provided a copy
of Swindol to Eubanks and suggested that Smith
should not be fired based upon the Mississippi Supreme
Court's interpretation of Mississippi Code §
45-9-55. Eubanks Decl. [67-12] at 1-2.
consulted with his manager, Mark Fredrick
(“Fredrick”), and Fredrick's manager,
Director of Labor Relations Tony Skelton, who instructed
Eubanks to proceed with the termination of Smith because the
“legal department was aware of the ruling and had
confirmed that the company had the legal right to enforce its
prohibition of firearms on company parking lots because
public access to them was restricted.” Id.
Smith was terminated on May 9, 2016. Id.;
Termination Memo.  at 1.
diversity jurisdiction, Plaintiff filed a Complaint  in
this Court on November 14, 2016, followed by an Amended
Complaint  on April 7, 2017, advancing claims against
Ingalls under state law for wrongful discharge, and seeking
compensatory and punitive damages. Plaintiff alleges that his
May 9, 2016, discharge for having a “firearm in his
locked vehicle on company premises” violated
Mississippi public policy, specifically Mississippi Code
§ 45-9-55. Am. Compl.  at 2.
has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment  arguing that it
is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on Smith's
claims for wrongful discharge and punitive damages. Mem. in
Supp.  at 1. Ingalls contends that its policy prohibiting
firearms in its parking lots is enforceable because Ingalls
“restricts public access with no-trespassing signs,
security patrols, and closed circuit cameras monitored in a
central security station, ” which complies with the
mandate of Mississippi Code § 45-9-55(2), such that
Ingalls could terminate Smith for having a firearm in his van
in the parking lot. Id.
asserts that its policy prohibiting weapons is communicated
to its employees during their orientation, through articles
in the shipyard newspaper, and by way of signs posted at the
entrances of all parking lots which state that weapons are
prohibited and that vehicles are subject to search.
Id. at 2. Ingalls further maintains that Smith was
properly terminated for violating this policy because he had
weapons including “a handgun, ammunition[, ] and a
pipe” in his van on shipyard property. Eubanks Decl.
[67-12] at 2.
Ingalls seeks summary judgment on its affirmative defense
that Smith failed to mitigate his damages such that he should
not receive back pay after November 2016, when Smith refused
to return to work. Mem. in Supp.  at 24-25. Ingalls
posits that Smith's punitive damages claim should be
dismissed because, in terminating Smith for having a weapon
in his van, Ingalls relied upon advice of its counsel that
“Ingalls is entitled to enforce its firearms
prohibition because it restricts public access to its parking
lots.” Id. at 7-8, 23-24.
responds that around March or April 2016 he learned that
Mississippi law permitted him to have a firearm in his
vehicle at work because the parking lot was not restricted.
Mem. in Opp'n.  at 3. He then began keeping a handgun
in his vehicle for his own safety. Id. Smith asserts
that Ingalls' parking lots did not qualify as restricted
under the statute because they did not have a physical
barrier or a security gate at the entrances, id. at
19-20, and argues that he was unlawfully terminated for
having a firearm in his van, in violation of Mississippi Code
§ 45-9-55(2), id. at 19-24. Smith further
contends that he is entitled to an award of punitive damages
given that Mergenshroer supplied Eubanks with a copy of the
Mississippi Supreme Court's opinion in Swindol v.
Aurora Flight Sciences Corp., 194 So.3d 847 (Miss.
2016), prior to his termination. Thus, Ingalls had knowledge
that it was violating Mississippi law and cannot now rely on
advice of counsel as a defense. Id. at 24-25.
Relevant legal standards 1
judgment is appropriate when there is no genuine issue as to
any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to
judgment as a matter of law.” Cox v. Wal-Mart
Stores E., L.P., 755 F.3d 231, 233 (5th Cir. 2014);
see Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). In deciding a motion for
summary judgment, a court “view[s] the evidence and
draw[s] reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to
the nonmoving party.” Hemphill v. State Farm Mut.
Auto. Ins. Co., 805 F.3d 535, 538 (5th Cir. 2015)
(quoting Cox, 755 F.3d at 233); Maddox v.
Townsend & Sons, Inc., 639 F.3d 214, 216 (5th Cir.
it can determine that there is no genuine issue for trial, a
court must be satisfied that “the record taken as a
whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the
non-moving party.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v.
Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). If the
movant carries this burden, “the nonmovant must go
beyond the pleadings and designate specific facts showing
that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Little v.
Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en
banc); see also Lujan v. National Wildlife
Federation, 497 U.S. 871, 888 (1990) (the nonmovant must
set forth specific facts to contradict the specific facts set
forth by the movant, general averments are not sufficient).
rebut a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the
opposing party must show, with “significant probative
evidence, ” that there exists a genuine issue of
material fact. Hamilton v. Segue Software, Inc., 232
F.3d 473, 477 (5th Cir. 2000). “A genuine dispute of
material fact means that evidence is such that a reasonable
jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.”
Royal v. CCC&R Tres Arboles, LLC, 736 F.3d 396,
400 (5th Cir. 2013) (quotation omitted). An actual
controversy exists “when both parties have submitted
evidence of contradictory facts.” Salazar-Limon v.
Houston, 826 F.3d 272, 277 (5th Cir. 2016) (quotation
Mississippi Code § 45-9-55
federal court sitting in diversity must apply state
substantive law. See, e.g., Times-Picayune Pub. Corp. v.
Zurich American Ins. Co., 421 F.3d 328, 334 (5th Cir.
2005) (citing Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64
(1938)). The parties do not dispute that Mississippi
substantive law controls here.
Code § 45-9-55 provides:
(1) Except as otherwise provided in subsection (2) of this
section, 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 ...