Judge Goodwine dismisses lawsuit by ex-UK employee fired for having gun

Student lost job after gun found in his car

jhewlett@herald-leader.comOctober 29, 2010 

Fayette Circuit Judge Pamela Goodwine has dismissed a lawsuit brought by a former University of Kentucky graduate student, who claimed he was wrongfully fired from his job at UK Chandler Medical Center because he had a handgun in his car while it was parked on school property.

Goodwine said in her order, which was entered into the court record this week, that UK's "policy prohibiting possession of a deadly weapon on campus is not a violation of public policy" and that Michael Mitchell "was not wrongfully discharged."

But the fight is not over, Mitchell's attorney, Christopher Hunt, said Thursday. He said he would file an appeal on Mitchell's behalf. He said he and his client will be discussing whether the appeal should be sent directly to the Kentucky Supreme Court. The case is important because it involves the right to bear arms, a basic right under the state and U.S. constitutions, Hunt said.

Hunt said Goodwine did not correctly interpret Kentucky laws upon which her decision was based.

"If those statutes mean what Judge Goodwine says they mean, then we believe those statutes violate the Kentucky and U.S. constitutions," he said.

UK spokesman Jay Blanton said the school was "pleased with the decision. The judge's ruling underscores the university's right to regulate the possession of firearms on campus."

Mitchell, 27, was fired as an anesthesia assistant at the medical center in April 2009 after he told UK officials he had a concealed-carry permit for a firearm that he kept in his vehicle, which was parked in the student lot at Commonwealth Stadium.

Other medical center employees apparently had concluded that Mitchell had a firearm in his locker at the hospital after listening in on part of a conversation Mitchell had with another employee, Mitchell said in his suit, which was filed this year. UK officials searched the locker and found no firearm. They questioned Mitchell, and he told them about the gun in his car, according to the suit.

"The right to 'bear arms' is not absolute, and exceptions to this right have been recognized by the Kentucky Supreme Court," Goodwine said in her opinion and order.

"The importance of limiting the right to possess deadly weapons as a reasonable exercise of the state's police power on school campuses cannot be overemphasized in light of recent events at Virginia Tech, Heath High School in Paducah and Columbine High School in Colorado wherein multiple people were gunned down by fellow students and/or employees who brought guns onto campus," the judge said.

Said Hunt: "Our argument is we don't dispute that the university has some authority to control in some manner possession of firearms on their property. But that authority does not extend to a person's vehicle."

Under an exception in state law, a person cannot be prevented from keeping a firearm in his vehicle as long as the person is keeping it lawfully, Hunt said.

"It's a very narrow exception, and we believe it's very specific," he said.

"What is really perplexing to me and to Michael about the judge's ruling is, this exception that we have cited to the court, she doesn't appear to deal with. She doesn't explain why it's not an exception," Hunt said.

Goodwine's opinion could affect everyone who drives through the UK campus with a gun in their vehicle, Hunt said.

UK's policy against firearms, Mitchell said, "affects me outside of use of their property."

Mitchell, who will begin studying to become a physician in November at Ross University in the West Indies, was working toward a master of public health degree in epidemiology at UK when the issue involving the gun began. He got his master's degree, but it took him more than a year to land a job in his field. He began working as an epidemiologist for state government in July.

"I'm surprised by the ruling. I just don't agree with the judge. I don't understand the decision she has made," he said.

In November 2008, a federal court jury found Mitchell not guilty of setting an apartment on fire at the Kirklevington Hills complex. Prosecutors had argued that Mitchell wanted to get out of his apartment lease without paying a penalty because of a series of fires at the complex from February 2005 to December 2006.

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

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