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Posts Tagged ‘Parkland’

School Shootings: Is There a Constitutional Duty to Protect Students?

Posted on: January 16th, 2019

By: Jake Daly

Sadly, our nation’s schools are not free from shootings and other violent crimes. When such crimes occur on private property, the laws of many states provide the victims a remedy (money damages) against the owner of the property and/or the operator of the business located on the property. But what about crimes that occur on public property, particularly a school campus?

For example, Nikolas Cruz killed 17 students and school officials and injured 17 more during a shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018. Fifteen students who survived the incident, but who claim to have suffered psychological injuries because of it, sued Broward County, Andrew Medina (a school monitor), Robert Runcie (school superintendent), Scott Israel (Broward County Sheriff), Jan Jordan (captain with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office), and Scot Peterson (school resource officer) for violating their substantive due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that the defendants had a constitutional duty to protect them from Cruz and that they violated this duty by intentionally disregarding warnings about Cruz, by maintaining a policy of allowing “killers to walk through a school killing people without being stopped,” and by failing to provide adequate training to school officials. The defendants denied liability on the ground that there is no constitutional duty to protect students from being harmed by third parties.

The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida and was assigned to Judge Beth Bloom, who was nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate in 2014. In her order granting the defendants’ motions to dismiss, Judge Bloom relied on United States Supreme Court precedent holding that the Due Process Clause is “a limitation on the State’s power to act, not . . . a guarantee of certain minimal levels of safety and security.” In other words, “nothing in the language of the Due Process Clause itself requires the State to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens against invasion by private actors,” such as Cruz. Nevertheless, the Due Process Clause does impose a duty on state actors to protect people who are in their custody from harm by third parties. But, as Judge Bloom ruled, this duty does not apply to this case because students are not considered to be in the custody of the state such that they have been deprived of their ability to take care of themselves. Accordingly, the defendants did not violate the plaintiffs’ substantive due process rights.

This case serves as a good reminder that the defendant in any case must have owed the plaintiff a legal duty to act or refrain from acting in a specific way. A moral duty will not suffice. Liability cannot be based on how innocent or sympathetic the plaintiff is. Nor can liability be based on the fact that a tragic event has occurred. There is no question that the plaintiffs in this case were innocent and “deserving,” but that is not enough. There must have been a legal duty. The plaintiffs in this case lost because there is no constitutional duty owed by school officials to protect students from harm inflicted by third parties. To some, this rule may be seen as unfair and contrary to common sense, but there are good policy reasons for it. After all, the purpose of the Due Process Clause was to protect people from the state, not to ensure that the state protected them from each other.

For additional information, please contact Jake Daly at [email protected] or (770) 818-1431.

Guns in Workplace: Primer for Employers in PA & NJ

Posted on: April 12th, 2018

By: John P. McAvoy

Presently and tentatively, Pennsylvania and New Jersey do not have guns-at-work laws. There are, however, gun laws in place in both states that similarly impede an employer’s ability to control the workplace; namely, the states’ right-to-carry laws.

New Jersey has some of the most restrictive right-to-carry laws in the country. For starters, the state does not allow individuals to open carry handguns. The state is also known as a “may issue” state, which means the chief police officer of a city or county, or the superintendent of the state police, has discretion in determining whether to issue a concealed weapons permit to an applicant. New Jersey law generally forbids any person to “ha[ve] in his possession any handgun …, without first obtaining a permit to carry the same.” N.J.S.A. § 2C:39-5(b). While state law provides certain exceptions to this general ban—including one for “keeping or carrying [a firearm] about [one’s] place of business, residence, premises or other land owned or possessed by him,” id. at § 2C:39-6(e), these exceptions do not allow the concealed carrying of a handgun in public without first obtaining a permit, and it is nearly impossible for an individual to obtain a handgun carry permit in New Jersey. See generally id. at §§ 2C: 58-3; 58-4; and N.J.A.C. 13:54-2.4(b) (outlining numerous screening and training requirements an applicant must satisfy in order to be eligible for a handgun carry permit, including a ‘justifiable need’ to carry a handgun). New Jersey’s right-to-carry laws are so restrictive that the state does not have or need separate laws governing firearms on private property, including parking lots, much less in the workplace. On their face, these laws make it unlawful for almost all employees to possess concealed firearms in the workplace.

Pennsylvania’s right-to-carry laws are far less exacting than their New Jersey counterparts. Unlike New Jersey, Pennsylvania law is silent on the legality of openly carrying a firearm, making it de facto to do so in all places except Philadelphia. It is also a “shall issue” state. This means that while a person needs to obtain a license to carry a handgun, the granting authority (i.e., the sheriff or police chief) has no discretion to deny an applicant provided he or she meets the necessary character and fitness requirements. See 18 Pa. C.S. § 6109. Unlike New Jersey, there is no requirement that an applicant demonstrate “good cause” for the weapon. Instead, law enforcement has 45 days to investigate an applicant’s background to determine eligibility. See id. Moreover, and with the limited exception of commonsense places designated by statute as off-limits, including schools, correctional facilities, and courts, id. at §§ 912-913, 5122; 50 P.S. § 4605; et al., any employee with a license to carry may come to work with a gun concealed on his or her person.

While Pennsylvania’s right-to-carry laws are relatively liberal, there are no state laws that force an employer or business to allow or prohibit guns on its property. While 20 states have laws that regulate whether employees have the right to transport and store licensed, concealed weapons in their locked vehicles in an employer’s parking lot, the majority of states – including Pennsylvania – do not.  Without an express statute on point, courts generally give employers the right to control the workplace. As such, employers are free to impose policies allowing or restricting the possession of weapons in vehicles parked on company property and/or in the workplace.

In 2015, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania addressed an employer’s efforts to control the workplace by enforcing its weapons restrictions policy. In Stewart v. FedEx Express, 114 A.3d 424 (Pa. Super. 2015), the Superior Court upheld the right of FedEx to terminate the plaintiff for carrying a handgun in the glove compartment of his personal vehicle while performing work for FedEx. Id. at 424. FedEx’s policy prohibits employees from having firearms or weapons on company property, in company vehicles or in company buildings, unless authorized by FedEx security. Id. at 426. In so holding, the Superior Court noted that Pennsylvania is an at-will state and rejected the plaintiff’s constitutional claim that he had an unrestricted “right to bear arms,” even at work, and reasoned that “neither the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, nor the Pennsylvania Constitution, bestows on any person the right to carry a concealed firearm or transport a loaded firearm in a vehicle.” Id. at 428-29. Moreover, the Court noted that Pennsylvania has no right-to-carry law that restricts employers from prohibiting firearms on their property or while performing work duties. Id. at 429.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey are ‘employment at-will’ states; meaning, employers may generally terminate an employment relationship at any time and for any reason. Therefore, employers in both states are free to terminate an employee for any reason regardless of whether there is a specific policy on point. Nevertheless, it is a good idea for employers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey to follow FedEx’s example and take similar steps to control the workplace.

Pennsylvania employers in favor of guns in the workplace may impose policies relative to same. These policies should detail the type of weapons permitted in the workplace and in vehicles parked on company property, and state that the company policy is subject to the licensing requirements of state law. These policies should also set forth the employer’s expectations with respect to the handling and storage of weapons on company property and in the workplace. To limit any potential confusion with respect to the company’s expectations and what is and is not permissible, it is recommended that employers make their policies as detailed as possible.

New Jersey’s right-to-carry laws are so restrictive that is almost always unlawful for an employee to possess a firearm in the workplace. As such, most New Jersey employers cannot authorize their employees to possess a firearm in the workplace without violating state law. However, to avoid any ambiguity and as an added layer of protection from liability, New Jersey employers may also adopt policies to better control the workplace.

It is important for Pennsylvania employers opposed to the idea of guns and other weapons in the workplace take steps to further their interests. To that end, Pennsylvania employers may implement policies that prohibit employees from having firearms or weapons on company property, in company vehicles or in company buildings. Absent such policies, there is nothing prohibiting a properly licensed Pennsylvania employee from bringing his or her concealed gun to the workplace.

It is recommended that the policies adopted and implemented by employers opposed to guns and weapons in the workplace in both states clearly explain that all employees, including those with licenses to carry, are forbidden from having firearms or weapons on company property, in company vehicles, or in company buildings, unless expressly authorized by the employer. It is also a good idea for these policies to provide that violation of the company’s weapons policies is grounds for immediate termination, as it would make the process of terminating an employee for-cause much cleaner and could allow the employer to save on future litigation and unemployment benefits costs associated with the termination. This is because employees that are terminated for-cause are generally ineligible to receive unemployment benefits and will have a harder time asserting a meritorious wrongful termination lawsuit against their former employers.

Given this is a rapidly changing and developing area of the law, it is also suggested that employers charge someone in their human resources and/or compliance departments with staying current on the gun control regulations. Absent immunity, complying with a law that allows employees to bring concealed firearms to the employer’s property can increase legal risk. In contrast, noncompliance with a gun law can lead to civil liability or criminal penalties in some states. Therefore, it is important that employers stay apprised of the rapidly changing gun laws of each state in which they conduct business. The person charged with this responsibility should understand the impact the new gun control law might have on the business and recognize what, if any, changes in the law require an amendment to company policies.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact John McAvoy at [email protected].