Fired worker's suit tests Florida's concealed-gun law
A Boca Raton man claims he was fired in violation of Florida law for keeping a gun in his car while at work.
BY PATRICK DANNER
Packing heat got Steven Collazo sacked.
The Boca Raton man now is suing his former employer, the Florida subsidiary of a national funeral-home company, claiming his firing last month violated a new state law that allows people with concealed-weapons permits to have their firearms locked in their cars on workplace property.
The case is believed to be the first in South Florida since the law took effect July 1.
In Orlando, a security guard sued Walt Disney World in July after he was terminated for having a weapon in his car at work. He later dropped the suit because it was too costly to pursue, his lawyer said in an interview.
Collazo, 36, is seeking unspecified financial damages over his firing by SCI Funeral Services of Florida, in a lawsuit filed in Broward Circuit Court. His primary job was removing and delivering human remains.
''He was fired from a job that he liked and excelled at, and needed,'' said Marc Wites, Collazo's lawyer. ''It shouldn't have happened.'' Collazo, who has since gotten a job as a limousine driver, declined an interview request.
A spokeswoman for SCI parent Service Corp. International said it's the Houston-based company's policy not to comment on litigation.
Here's what Collazo's lawsuit claims happened:
Two SCI managers told Collazo in late November that two unidentified people spotted him with a gun in his pocket on company property in Pompano Beach.
Collazo denied the charge and offered to show the managers the gun in his vehicle. The managers declined the offer. The weapon isn't described in the lawsuit, and Wites wouldn't identify it.
About a week later, the managers showed Collazo an employee handbook that details the company policy prohibiting ''carrying unauthorized weapons (firearms, knives, explosives, etc.) on company-owned facilities, such as buildings, grounds, parking facilities,'' the suit says.
Collazo responded that SCI's policy violated his rights. The suit goes on to allege the SCI managers told Collazo the two unidentified accusers said his gun had a pearl-colored handle. At that point, the managers and Collazo went out to his car, where he showed them the gun -- which the suit says is black.
A short time later, the managers told Collazo the two accusers said the gun was black. The pair also said they had never seen a gun, only a ''bulge'' in Collazo's pocket that they ''believed'' was a gun. Despite Collazo assuring the managers he never removed the gun from his car, he was fired, the suit alleges.
Collazo's case serves a cautionary tale for Florida businesses to verify that their corporate policies don't contradict the new Florida law, said David M. Goldman, a Jacksonville lawyer who writes a blog about firearm ownership and possession.
''If they do [conflict], they need to modify their handbooks to comply with the Florida statute so that managers don't inadvertently rely on clauses in the handbook to terminate someone when it's not proper,'' Goldman said.
Some Florida companies aren't entirely bound by the new law. Disney, for example, took advantage of an exemption for companies with a federal explosives permit. Disney presents daily fireworks shows at its theme park. Insurer USAA in Tampa is exempt because it has a school on company grounds.
The attorney general's office can sue employers to enforce the law, but it hasn't filed any lawsuits, spokeswoman Sandi Copes said in an e-mail. The office has received 31 complaints since July.
Some business groups fought the law on the grounds that it conflicts with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, which requires employers to maintain a safe work environment.
A federal judge in 2007 found the Oklahoma law ran afoul of the federal regulations. The ruling is being appealed. But two weeks ago, Thomas Stohler, then acting assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said the Oklahoma and Florida laws didn't conflict with federal law.
''Gun-related violence is not a recognized occupational hazard in industry as a whole, under normal working conditions,'' Stohler wrote in a letter to an Oklahoma state representative. ''Therefore, state laws protecting an employee's right to transport and store firearms in a locked car on employer premises would not on their face impede the employer's ability to comply'' with the federal act.