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Smith v. Huntington Ingalls Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Southern Division

January 30, 2019

CHARLES PHILIP SMITH PLAINTIFF
v.
HUNTINGTON INGALLS INCORPORATED DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT HUNTINGTON INGALLS INCORPORATED'S MOTION [67] FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          HALIL SULEYMAN OZERDEN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         BEFORE THE COURT is Defendant Huntington Ingalls Incorporated's Motion [67] 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 [67] should be denied.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Relevant facts

         The 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. [68] at 1.

         This 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.

         According 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.[1] 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.

         When 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 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 Department. Id.

         On May 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.

         Eubanks 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. [25] at 1.

         B. Procedural history

         Invoking diversity jurisdiction, Plaintiff filed a Complaint [1] in this Court on November 14, 2016, followed by an Amended Complaint [20] on April 7, 2017, advancing claims against Ingalls under state law for wrongful discharge, and seeking compensatory and punitive damages.[2] 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. [20] at 2.

         Ingalls has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment [67] 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. [68] 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.

         Ingalls 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.

         Alternatively, 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. [68] 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.

         Smith 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. [71] 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.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Relevant legal standards

         1. Summary judgment

         “Summary 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. 2011).

         Before 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).

         To 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 omitted).

         2. Mississippi Code § 45-9-55

         A 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 ...


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