People frequently assume: “this is an at-will state, so I can fire whomever I want for any reason.” This is true in many states if the reason does not violate federal or state law (which is an entirely separate conversation). But exceptions to the at-will doctrine exist all over the country, and recent developments in Mississippi may allow more disgruntled employees to side-step the at-will doctrine to pursue wrongful termination and other claims against unwary employers.
The Mississippi Supreme Court carved out its first exception to the at-will doctrine nearly 30 years ago in McArn v. Allied Bruce–Terminix Company, Inc. 626 So.2d 603, 606 (Miss. 1993). The “McArn exception” allows an employee to sue for wrongful termination if the employer terminates the employee for reporting or refusing to participate in an employer’s criminal acts.
McArn created a seemingly endless number of scenarios from which such a claim could arise. For example, if a company fires its bookkeeper because she refuses to lie to the IRS about the company’s taxes, then she may assert a wrongful termination claim. Plaintiff’s lawyers have found creative ways to assert McArn and other claims from Mississippi’s convoluted and archaic criminal statutes. Although the Mississippi Supreme Court has declined requests to create additional exceptions, it recently approved a new avenue for claimants to circumvent the doctrine.
In 2016, the Mississippi Supreme Court allowed a former employee to pursue a wrongful termination claim against his employer that discharged him for possessing a firearm in his personal vehicle while on company property. Swindol v. Aurora Flight Scis. Corp., 194 So. 3d 847 (Miss. 2016). Why? Because a Mississippi statute declared it legally impermissible for the employer to take such action unless the vehicle was behind the employer’s secured parking lot (which it was not).
This body of law is arguably now expanding. Recently, a federal court in Mississippi granted summary judgment against an employer, finding the employer liable for wrongfully terminating an employee under similar circumstances as Swindol. Cherry v. Huntington Ingalls Inc., 2019 WL 6467825, at *5 (S.D. Miss. Dec. 2, 2019). In an unpublished opinion in September of 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that a wrongful termination claim may exist under a Mississippi statute that prohibits an employer from terminating an employee for performing jury service or for attempting to persuade the employee to avoid jury service. Simmons v. Pac. Bells, LLC, 787 F. App’x 837 (5th Cir. 2019). More than likely, we can expect this trend to continue to grow.
Court rulings like these are opening the doors for courts to limit at-will protections across the country – leading to costly and potentially embarrassing litigation. Butler Snow’s Labor and Employment Group can help navigate all employment issues and avoid these legal pitfalls.