The Law Firm of Smith & Wesson
Mark Andresen

The Law Firm of Smith & Wesson

Depending on your job, there could be fifty good reasons to bring a gun to work. If you happen to work in a law firm, make that a hundred.

The top five:

5. Compare muzzle velocity with that smug paralegal's puny .32.

4. Annual brief-shredding contest, semiauto division.

3. Elegant shoulder holster provides dramatic accent to pinstripe suit.

2. Attorneys on premises.

1. Ally McBeal on premises.

Two years ago, Sarah Oulton, a word processor at one of Denver's most prestigious law offices, figured she had the best reason of all. Her workplace was unsafe, she claims, and her supervisors weren't doing anything to address the problem. So she brought a handgun to the office for personal protection and locked it in her desk.

A few days later, Oulton was fired for packing. She's now suing her former employer, Davis, Graham & Stubbs, for wrongful discharge. Although the recently filed case hasn't drawn much attention in legal circles, it raises a number of loaded questions about Colorado labor laws and workplace-safety issues at a time when Denver's previously restrictive gun ordinances are undergoing drastic change.

DGS hired Oulton in the fall of 2000 to work a late shift that sometimes didn't end until 1 a.m. At the time, the company, widely regarded as one of the top corporate law firms in the state, was in the process of renovating the offices it had recently occupied at 1550 17th Street, a six-story building in LoDo. According to Oulton's complaint, security for night workers was "virtually non-existent," as the ongoing construction allowed a stream of strangers to roam through the building.

Oulton's job required her to deliver paperwork to various deserted offices at DGS late at night; to reach her car, she had to navigate the building's parking garage hours after the attendant had left. She claims to have been accosted by drug dealers and panhandlers and harassed by transients who "made crude and sometimes sexually suggestive comments."

Police reports for 1550 17th Street show numerous 911 calls from the building over an eighteen-month period in 2000-2001, most of them hang-ups. Several thefts and two assaults were reported as well, including a drive-by paintball attack on a security guard by suspects who returned later that evening to threaten the same guard. ("The suspect got out of the vehicle and stated, 'Next time, I'll cap your ass!'")

Oulton's complaint states that she made numerous attempts to persuade her supervisors to beef up security, to no avail. One manager told her that several DGS partners had an ownership stake in the building, she claims, and didn't want to incur additional expenses for security measures. When she asked if she could bring her dog to work for protection, she was reportedly told, "This is a Denver law firm, not a Boulder law firm!"

On April 12, 2001, Oulton was working her regular shift when she heard "a blood-curdling shriek" and encountered a frantic janitor, who asked her to call 911. According to police reports, Dourwood Malone, a twenty-year-old DGS clerk with a history of mental illness and religious delusions, had pushed a cleaning woman through a plate-glass window and stabbed her with a pair of needle-nosed pliers before other cleaning personnel could restrain him.

Malone was arrested, pleaded guilty to menacing, and was sentenced to two years of intensive supervised probation. The day after the attack, Oulton brought her handgun -- identified in court papers only as a revolver -- to work. That evening she was discussing the stabbing with a fellow employee, who boasted of a blue-plated, five-shot, Smith & Wesson .38 special that she carried in a knapsack.

"They don't protect us around here," the co-worker allegedly told Oulton, "and I'm not staying till one in the morning without my gun."

Although Oulton didn't show the co-worker her own revolver, she acknowledged being concerned for her safety and bringing the gun to work. The conversation apparently resulted in her dismissal (though not the co-worker's) a few days later for violating the firm's "Workplace Violence Policy" -- a policy that Oulton contends didn't exist.

Oulton, who has since left the state, couldn't be reached for comment; her attorney, Tom Blumenthal, would not comment on the case. Chris Richardson, the chief executive officer at DGS, declined to respond to Oulton's specific allegations, citing the pending litigation. He did, however, confirm the reason for Oulton's firing.

"We had to terminate her because she brought a concealed, loaded gun to work," Richardson says. "We thought that was just unacceptable."

The right to bear arms in public and private establishments in Denver is currently in a state of confusion. New state laws that took effect this spring have made it easier to obtain concealed-weapons permits and openly carry firearms in various places, but the city's attorneys are challenging aspects of the new legislation in an effort to curb what some officials believe will be a "Dodge City" situation. But guns are still off limits in security-sensitive schools and government buildings, and employers still have the right to set their own policies on whether guns are allowed in the workplace.

"I think it's disgusting that Davis, Graham & Stubbs won't allow this woman to exercise her right to carry arms," says David Kopel, an Independence Institute fellow who's written extensively on gun-rights issues. "But they can make the rules. They can tell their employees they'll fire them if they read the New York Times on their premises."

But what did DGS tell its employees? After the firm failed to produce evidence of its Workplace Violence Policy, a hearing officer with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment granted Oulton's claim for unemployment benefits. The officer ruled that Oulton "acted reasonably in light of the serious attack she had witnessed the night before."

Oulton claims that DGS intentionally violated her constitutional rights. Richardson says the firm "has done the necessary things" to address potential security issues. And, of course, there's no shortage of lawyers on the premises, armed with years of training, to defend the case.


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