Grad student sues UK over being fired for having handgun in car

jhewlett@herald-leader.comFebruary 2, 2010 

A University of Kentucky graduate student has sued the university and others, claiming he was wrongfully fired from his job at the UK Chandler Medical Center because he had a handgun in his car.

The car was parked at Commonwealth Stadium while he was at work.

Michael Mitchell, who had a permit allowing him to have a concealed weapon, was working as an anesthesia technician at the medical center in April 2009, when he was fired.

Mitchell contends that under state law he was allowed to have the gun in his car and that state law supersedes UK rules prohibiting deadly weapons on campus by anyone other than authorized personnel, such as police, security or military personnel; or students who are participating in athletic or academic activities such as Reserve Officers' Training Corps or rifle team.

Mitchell has not been able to find another job. He said he thinks his being fired from UK has something to do with that.

"I was flabbergasted," Mitchell said of his firing. "It looks like I was a bad employee ... which is not the case." He said he worked as much as 120 hours every two weeks while he was at the medical center and had received commendations for his work.

Mitchell, 26, is working on a master's degree in epidemiology and hopes to attend medical school at UK. When UK officials found out about the gun, they indicated that his student status could be revoked, but later they said he could finish school, said his attorney, Christopher Hunt.

Whether the issue with the gun will be a factor in Mitchell's attending medical school at UK hasn't come up, Hunt said.

UK attorney Barbara Jones had no comment on the lawsuit.

"The whole situation came down to somebody overhearing a conversation," Mitchell said Monday.

Other medical center employees told supervisors there that Mitchell had a firearm in his locker at the hospital, according to the lawsuit, which was filed last week. The employees apparently had come to that conclusion after listening in on part of a conversation Mitchell had with another employee, the suit says. UK officials searched Mitchell's locker, finding no firearm. They also questioned him, and he told them he had a concealed-carry permit for a firearm that he kept in his vehicle, which at the time was parked about a mile away in the student parking lot at Commonwealth Stadium.

Mitchell says in the lawsuit that his supervisors told him he was being suspended, pending an investigation. A UK police officer escorted Mitchell to his car and confiscated the handgun. A week later, Mitchell was fired. He was first told he was being fired for creating a hostile work environment; later he was told he was terminated for violating UK's policy prohibiting the possession of a firearm on campus, the lawsuit says.

Mitchell said Monday that UK officials told him they would investigate the matter when they suspended him.

"I said 'Great, they're going to hear my side of the story,'" he said. But they never asked for his side of the story, he said.

"On top of all that, UK tried to take away my unemployment benefits," he added.

UK challenged the awarding of unemployment benefits for Mitchell, but a hearing officer ruled that Mitchell was fired for reasons other than misconduct connected with his employment, and the awarding of the benefits was upheld, the lawsuit says. UK appealed, but the hearing officer's ruling was upheld.

Mitchell said 13 different background checks were done on him before he got the permit to carry the gun, and he doesn't know why UK says he's not allowed to have it.

"I loved my job. I don't see how, if I had a firearm on me or whatever, I don't see how that relates to my ability to do my job," Mitchell said.

Reach Jennifer Hewlett at (859) 231-3308 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3308.

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