Understanding Wrongful Discharge

Wrongful Discharge

“The doctrine of employment-at-will is firmly embedded in the common law of Oklahoma. Under this doctrine, an employee with an employment contract of indefinite duration is at liberty to leave his or her employment for any reason or no reason without incurring liability to the employer. Notions of fundamental fairness underlie the concept of mutuality that extends a corresponding freedom to the employer. Thus, under the employment-at-will doctrine an employer is also at liberty to fire an at-will employee for any reason or no reason, without incurring liability to the employee.”

However, Oklahoma courts did fashion a common law solution when employers attempt to disregard the letter and purpose of the law. In Burk v. K-Mart Corp., 1998 OK 22, the Supreme Court of Oklahoma held that, “An employer may be held liable when a termination violates a clear mandate of public policy. Courts determine what a clear mandate of public policy is. Then, a jury determines if an employer violated it. The letter or purpose of a constitutional, statutory, or other regulatory provision or scheme is considered. Prior judicial decisions may also establish the relevant public policy. Yet, courts should proceed cautiously if called upon to declare public policy absent some clear legislative or judicial expression on the subject. If there exists a federal law that sufficiently protects the interest of an Oklahoma public policy, a common law remedy is unnecessary. Accordingly, the circumstances which present an actionable claim for wrongful termination against public policy is one where either 1. An employee is discharged for refusing to act in violation of an established and well-defined public policy or 2. For performing an act consistent with a clear and compelling public policy.”

“[I]t is not sufficient to expound a public policy. One must show that the propounded public policy is articulated by constitutional, statutory, or decisional law.” Specifically, the Oklahoma legislature has generally adopted discrimination statutes. 25 O.S. § 1101(A), states:

The general purposes of this act are to provide for execution within the state of the policies embodied in the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to make uniform the law of those states which enact this act, and to provide rights and remedies substantially equivalent to those granted under the federal Fair Housing Law.

In addition, Oklahoma has adopted the Americans with Disabilities Act by forbidding discrimination on the basis of handicap. See 25 O.S. § 1901. See generally 25 O.S. § 1102 – 1801. Other discriminatory practices under Oklahoma laws include:

It is a discriminatory practice for a person, or for two or more persons to conspire,
(1) to retaliate or discriminate against a person because he has opposed a discriminatory practice, or because he has made a charge, filed a complaint, testified, assisted, or participated in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this act;
(2) to aid, abet, incite, or coerce a person to engage in a discriminatory practice;
(3) willfully to interfere with the performance of a duty or the exercise of a power by the Commission or one of its members or representatives; or
(4) willfully to obstruct or prevent a person from complying with the provisions of this act or an order issued there under.

If you wish to read more on the topic please take a look at Ms. Cinocca’s full paper on Employee Discharge Documentation in Oklahoma: FMLA Overview Litigation. However, this document does not necessarily reflect the current state of all laws discussed as big changes have occurred in Oklahoma and federal law since it was originally written. As we further delve into our Employment law blog series, we will address updates and more recent issues.

Updates: For more information please visit the website of the State of Oklahoma Office of Civil Rights Enforcement. See also the employment section of our Golden Rule Resources or for more information on Employment Law check out our website and helpful video on employment law cases!