Parker v. Leaf River Cellulose, LLC
ORDER granting 69 Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment; denying 71 Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. Signed by District Judge Keith Starrett on 5/18/2017 (dtj)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF MISSISSIPPI
JOSEPH EDWARD PARKER
CIVIL ACTION NO. 2:14-CV-9-KS-MTP
LEAF RIVER CELLULOSE, LLC
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
This matter is before the Court on the Motion for Summary Judgment  filed by Plaintiff
Joseph Edward Parker and the Motion for Summary Judgment  filed by Defendant Leaf River
Cellulose, LLC. After considering the submissions of the parties, the record, and the applicable
law, the Court finds that Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment  is well taken and should
be granted. The Court further finds that Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment  is not
well taken and should be denied.
Plaintiff Joseph Edward Parker (“Plaintiff”) filed this suit on January 23, 2014, against
Defendant Leaf River Cellulose, LLC (“Defendant”), claiming that he was wrongfully discharged
in violation of Mississippi law. Plaintiff is a resident of Mississippi, and Defendant is a Delaware
limited liability company. This Court has diversity jurisdiction over this action pursuant to 28
U.S.C. § 1332.
Plaintiff began working for Defendant at its plant in New Augusta, Mississippi, in October
2008. (See Plaintiff Affidavit [69-1] at ¶ 2.) While employed at the plant, Plaintiff and other
employees utilized a parking area which has no gate, fence, or security station, and which “is
surrounded on all sides by roadways and open fields.” (See id. at ¶ 6.) At the entrances of this lot,
signs are posted which state, “THIS PARKING AREA IS FOR THE EXCLUSIVE USE OF GP1
EMPLOYEES AND THOSE CONDUCTING BUSINESS WITH GP. WEAPONS OF ANY
KIND ARE PROHIBITED, TO INCLUDE THE CARRYING OF A PISTOL OR REVOLVER.”
(Id. at ¶ 8.)
On December 12, 2013, Defendant received a report that Plaintiff had a firearm in his
locked personal vehicle, and Plaintiff granted permission for his vehicle to be searched. (Id. at ¶
3.) After finding the firearm in the vehicle, Defendant suspended Plaintiff for violating its firearm
policy and was ordered to leave the premises. (See id. at ¶ 4.) Some time later, Plaintiff
approached his supervisor, Don Garner (“Garner”), about the situation because he “was worried
about the outcome of his job.” (Garner Affidavit [69-12] at ¶ 4.) Plaintiff showed Garner Miss.
Code Ann. § 45-9-55, which prevents employers from “prohibiting a person from . . . storing a
firearm in a locked vehicle in any parking lot, parking garage, or other designated parking area”
unless “access is restricted or limited through the use of a gate, security station or other
means . . . .” Miss. Code Ann. § 45-9-55(1)-(2). Upon becoming aware of the situation and this
provision of Mississippi law, Garner contacted the head of security for Defendant and made him
aware of the potential legal issue. (See Garner Affidavit [69-12] at ¶ 5.)
On December 13, 2013, Plaintiff was terminated from his employment.
Plaintiff filed suit on January 23, 2014, and this Court dismissed under Federal Rule of
Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) on December 19, 2014, on the basis that Defendant was immune from
suit under § 45-9-55 and under Mississippi’s at-will employment doctrine. (See Order .) The
Fifth Circuit originally affirmed the dismissal, but reversed it on September 1, 2016, following the
“GP” refers to Georgia Pacific LLC, Defendant’s parent company. (See Memo. in Support  at p. 2.)
answer by the Mississippi Supreme Court of a certified question in a case involving the same issue.
(See USCA Opinion .) The case was then remanded back to this Court for further proceedings.
Standard of Review
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides that “[t]he court shall grant summary judgment
if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is
entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). “Where the burden of production
at trial ultimately rests on the nonmovant, the movant must merely demonstrate an absence of
evidentiary support in the record for the nonmovant’s case.” Cuadra v. Houston Indep. Sch. Dist.,
626 F.3d 808, 812 (5th Cir. 2010) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The nonmovant
must then “come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id.
“An issue is material if its resolution could affect the outcome of the action.” Sierra Club, Inc. v.
Sandy Creek Energy Assocs., L.P., 627 F.3d 134, 138 (5th Cir. 2010) (quoting Daniels v. City of
Arlington, Tex., 246 F.3d 500, 502 (5th Cir. 2001)). “An issue is ‘genuine’ if the evidence is
sufficient for a reasonable [fact-finder] to return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Cuadra, 626
F.3d at 812 (citation omitted).
The Court is not permitted to make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence.
Deville v. Marcantel, 567 F.3d 156, 164 (5th Cir. 2009) (citing Turner v. Baylor Richardson Med.
Ctr., 476 F.3d 337, 343 (5th Cir. 2007)). When deciding whether a genuine fact issue exists, “the
court must view the facts and the inferences to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to
the nonmoving party.” Sierra Club, 627 F.3d at 138. However, “[c]onclusional allegations and
denials, speculation, improbable inferences, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic
argumentation do not adequately substitute for specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial.”
Oliver v. Scott, 276 F.3d 736, 744 (5th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). Summary judgment is
mandatory “against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an
element essential to that party’s case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.”
Brown v. Offshore Specialty Fabricators, Inc., 663 F.3d 759, 766 (5th Cir. 2011) (quoting Celotex
Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986)).
As most of the facts in this case are undisputed, both Motions for Summary Judgment
 turn on the interpretation of Miss. Code Ann. § 45-9-55(2). Therefore, the Court begins
its analysis there.
Interpretation of Miss. Code Ann. § 45-9-55(2)
Under Mississippi law,
[a] private employer may prohibit an employee from transporting or storing a
firearm in a vehicle in a parking lot, parking garage, or other parking area the
employer provides for employees to which access is restricted or limited through
the use of a gate, security station or other means of restricting or limiting general
public access onto the property.
Miss. Code Ann. § 45-9-55(2). Defendant directs the Court to Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan
A. Garner’s treatise on statutory interpretation to determine the meaning of the phrase “other
means.” See Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts
(2012). Specifically, Defendant points to the general-terms canon for guidance.
Defendant is correct to point to this seminal treatise for guidance, because “other means” is
preceded by an “enumeration of two or more things,” the proper canon of interpretation to apply
in this instance is the ejusdem generis canon. Scalia & Garner, supra, at 199.
“The ejusdem generis canon applies when a drafter has tacked on a catchall phrase at the
end of an enumeration of specifics . . . .” Id. Under this doctrine, Mississippi law holds that
“[w]here general words follow specific words in statutory enumeration, the general words are
construed to embrace only those objects similar in nature to those objects enumerated by the
preceding specific words.” Flye v. Spotts, 94 So.3d 240, 245 (Miss. 2012) (quoting 2A Sutherland
Statutory Construction § 47:17 (Westlaw 7th ed.)). The phrase “other means,” then, must be
interpreted to be “similar in nature” to a “gate” or “security station.” See id.; see also Scalia &
Garner, supra, at 199.
Furthermore, the term “security station” must take its meaning from the term “gate” under
the doctrine of noscitur a sociis, which holds that “[a]ssociated words take their meaning from one
another.” State Farm Ins. Co. v. Gay, 526 So.2d 543, 537 (Miss. 1988); see also Scalia & Garner,
supra, at 195. This means that for a security station to limit or restrict access to the employee
parking area under §45-9-55(2), it must limit or restrict access in a way similar to a gate. See Gay,
526 So.2d at 537.
The language of the statute, then, allows private employers to prohibit firearms in their
employees’ cars if access to the employee parking area is restricted or limited by gate, security
station, or other similar barrier at or near the point of access. This reading is consistent with the
intent of the statute, as gleaned from the legislative session notes, which state that it “allows
persons to keep a firearm in their vehicle as long as the parking area is not gated or otherwise
restricts [sic] the public’s access.” Mississippi Legislative Highlights, 2006 Sess.
Application of Statute to the Facts at Issue
Defendant contends that the security station at the plant, located across a public road from
the parking area and by its own estimate approximately 145 feet away,2 satisfies the requirements
of § 45-9-55(2). Defendant argues that there is no “temporal restriction on the term security
Plaintiff contends that the distance is approximately 170 feet.
station.” (Defendant’s Memo. in Reply  at p. 2.) The Court assumes Defendant’s argument
is that there is no spatial restriction in the statute, as a temporal restriction makes no sense in this
Defendant does not, however, take into account the noscitur a sociis canon of
interpretation, which provides that the term “security station” must get its meaning from the “gate”
term it is associated with, nor does it take into account that the legislative intent of the statute was
to exempt private employers who gated or otherwise restricted access to their employees’ parking
area. See Gay, 526 So.2d at 537; Mississippi Legislative Highlights, 2006 Sess.; Scalia & Garner,
supra, at 195. For a security station to meet the requirements of § 45-9-55(2), then, it must restrict
access to the parking area in a way similar to a gate. Because it is obvious that a security station
located across a road and nearly half a football field away from the parking area cannot restrict
access in this way, the security station at the plant does not meet the requirements of § 45-9-55(2).
Defendant also argues that the signs posted at the entrances of the employee lot stating that
access is restricted to “GP EMPLOYEES AND THOSE CONDUCTING BUSINESS WITH GP”
is sufficient to satisfy the requirements of § 45-9-55(2). This argument is premised in Defendant’s
belief that the statute does not call for a “physical barrier” at the access points of the lot. (See
Memo. in Support  at p. 13.) This belief does not comport with either the language or the
purpose behind § 45-9-55(2), see supra II.B, which the Court interprets to require restricted or
limited access to the lot, similar to that of a gate or of a security station. Signs restricting access
do not do so in a manner consistent with that of a gate or security station. Therefore, the signage
posted around the parking area does not satisfy the requirements of § 45-9-55(2).
A temporal restriction is a restriction relating to time, which is not relevant here.
Because Defendant has failed to limit or restrict access to its employee parking area in a
manner consistent with § 45-9-55(2), it was not entitled to prevent Plaintiff from storing his
firearm in his locked vehicle under Mississippi law. Therefore, Defendant’s termination of
Plaintiff’s employment because he kept a firearm in his locked personal vehicle was wrongful. As
such, Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment  will be granted and judgment entered against
Defendant on the issue of liability. Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment  will be
denied as to the issue of liability. The matter will proceed to trial on the issue of damages only.
Defendant also asserts that the punitive damages claim should be dismissed regardless of
the Court’s determination of the other issues in this case because § 45-9-55(2) has never been
interpreted before now and because it would be “odd for [Defendant] to be subject to punitive
damages when two federal courts previously held that it could not even be subject to liability under
the statute.” (Memo. in Support  at p. 17.)
Under Mississippi law, to succeed on a claim for punitive damages, “there must enter into
the injury some element of aggression or some coloring of insult, malice or gross negligence,
evincing ruthless disregard for the rights of others.” Summers ex rel. Dawson v. St. Andrew’s
Episcopal Sch., Inc., 759 So.2d 1203, 1215 (Miss. 2000) (citing Fowler Butane Gas Co. v. Varner,
141 So.2d 226, 233 (Miss. 1962)). There is evidence that Defendant had notice prior to Plaintiff’s
termination that its policy prohibiting firearms in its employees’ vehicles could be in violation of
Plaintiff’s rights under § 45-9-55. (See Plaintiff Affidavit [69-1] at ¶ 11; Garner Affidavit [69-12]
at ¶¶ 4-6.) Garner, Plaintiff’s supervisor, even communicated with GP’s head of security that the
firearms policy might be in violation of § 45-9-55. (See Garner Affidavit [69-12] at ¶ 5.) From
this evidence, a reasonable jury could find that Defendant’s actions were in “ruthless disregard
for” Plaintiff’s rights under § 45-9-55.
The two federal decisions Defendant references, one from this Court and one from the Fifth
Circuit, are previous decisions in this case and dealt with employer immunity under § 45-9-55(5).
In those cases, both federal courts relied on the language of § 45-9-55(5) and Mississippi’s at-will
employment doctrine to find that Defendant was immune from suit. See Parker v. Leaf River
Cellulose, L.L.C., 621 F.App’x 271, 273-74 (5th Cir. 2015) (per curiam); Parker v. Leaf River
Cellulose, L.L.C., 73 F.Supp.3d 687, 689-93 (S.D. Miss. 2014). These decisions were reversed by
the Fifth Circuit after the Mississippi Supreme Court issued its opinion in Swindol v. Aurura Flight
Sciences, Corp., 194 So.3d 847 (Miss. 2016), which held that neither § 45-9-55(5) nor
Mississippi’s at-will employment doctrine barred suit when an employer terminated an employee
for having a firearm in his locked personal vehicle.
There is no doubt that these cases tend to show that Defendant may have relied on its
immunity from suit in good faith. Defendant, however, has not established that relying on
immunity from suit in good faith negates a disregard for the rights of others so as to defeat punitive
damages. The Court will apply Miss. Code Ann. §11-1-65 and the Plaintiff will be required to
establish its right to punitive damages pursuant to this statute. In the meantime, the Court will
deny its Motion for Summary Judgment  with respect to punitive damages as well.
IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED AND ADJUDGED that Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary
Judgment  is granted. Judgment is entered against Defendant on the issue of liability, and the
matter will proceed to trial on the issue of damages only.
IT IS FURTHERED ORDERED AND ADJUDGED that Defendant’s Motion for
Summary Judgment  is denied.
SO ORDERED AND ADJUDGED, on this, the
day of May, 2017.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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