Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

February 20, 2013

Discipline over rifle leads to suit

Kenneth Hart
The Independent

ASHLAND — A Marathon Petroleum Co. employee has filed a federal lawsuit against the company, its security contractor and others, alleging his rights were violated when he was disciplined for having a hunting rifle in the back seat of his vehicle.

Jason Seth Mullins maintains in his complaint he suffered medical problems because of the stress the disciplinary action placed upon him.

Mullins’ wife, Tabitha, is also a plaintiff in the suit, which was originally filed in Boyd Circuit Court and recently removed to U.S. District Court. In addition to Marathon, the defendants include Securitas Security Services USA Inc. and various employees of both companies.

The suit seeks unspecified damages for past and future physical and mental pain and suffering, embarrassment and humiliation, past and future medical expenses and lost wages and benefits. Punitive damages and attorney fees are also sought.

Tabitha Mullins is seeking damages for loss of society, affection, assistance, and/or household services and depression, “all to the detriment of her marital relationship.”

In the suit, filed by attorney Christopher Hunt of Pikeville, Jason Mullins, a barge cleaner at Marathon’s Catlettsburg refinery, claims the Marathon company policy under which he was disciplined runs counter to a Kentucky law that forbids employers from prohibiting anyone who is legally entitled to possess a firearm from keeping a weapon or ammunition in their vehicle on company property.

The law also states any employer that fires, disciplines, demotes or otherwise punishes an employee for “lawfully exercising” that right “shall be liable in civil damages,” the suit states.

Also, the gun was not concealed, as defined by Kentucky law, meaning Mullins was not required to have a concealed-carry permit to have it in his vehicle, the suit states.

According to the suit, an employee of Securitas walked past Jason Mullins’ vehicle in a Marathon-controlled parking lot of May 11, 2012, and noticed a hunting rifle in the back seat. That same day, Mullins claims he was called into a meeting with members of Marathon’s facility safety department. At that meeting, he says he was read the company’s weapons policy and then told to leave the premises until he was called.

During that meeting, Mullins claims he made the defendants aware of his rights, specifically citing the state law that allows workers to keep guns in their vehicles on company property.

Six days later, according to the suit. Mullins was summoned to another meeting and told he was being suspended for a day without pay and placed on probation for two years. During that probationary period, he was told he could be fired for any violation of company rule or policy, no matter how minor.

The disciplinary action also included disallowing Mullins to apply and test for higher-paying jobs within the company, the suit states.

Mullins continued to work for nine more days until added stress caused his blood pressure to “spike dangerously,” Hunt wrote. He was hospitalized at St. Mary’s Medical Center for five days and was found to have suffered an aneurysm as the result of his increased blood pressure. He subsequently underwent two “invasive procedures” to address the aneurysm and the resulting damage from it, the suit states.

Mullins also alleges he has been cleared to return to work, but Marathon has refused to allow him to do so, forcing him to use all his pain sick leave. He also maintains the defendants’ actions were an attempt to cause him to “voluntarily resign” his employment.

Kentucky is an at-will employment state, which generally allows companies to fire workers for any reason or no reason and grants employers wide latitude in disciplining employees. However, Hunt argues the defendants’ actions violated his clients rights under the Kentucky and U.S. constitutions, which trumps the at-will doctrine.

In its response to the complaint, Marathon acknowledges Mullins received “some form of discipline” during the course of his employment with the company, but it specifically denies wrongdoing.

The company also denied not allowing Mullins from returning to work. According to the response, Mullins first attempted to return on June 5, but the company medical staff wouldn’t clear him because his blood pressure was still dangerously high. He next attempted to come back on June 14, at which point the medical staff cleared him to come back with restrictions.

Marathon claims it was able to provide work for Mullins within those restrictions on June 15 and 18, and that otherwise, he was on leave of absence under the company’s sick leave policy, receiving 100 percent pay from June 4 until July 17 and 60 percent pay from July 18 until Oct. 19.

Also, Marathon maintains Mullins’ treating physician prevented him from working from July 3 through Oct. 22, at which point he returned to work.

KENNETH HART can be reached at khart@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2654.