Oklahoma’s Retaliatory Discharge Statute Withstands Constitutional Challenge

Lack of Jury Trial and Limited Damages Pass Constitutional Muster

Oklahoma’s retaliatory discharge statute [85A O.S.Supp. 2013 § 7], which restricts jurisdiction in relevant instances to the Workers’ Compensation Commission and, therefore, prevents claimants from having their causes heard by a jury, is constitutional, according to a recent ruling of the Supreme Court of Oklahoma [Southon v. Oklahoma Tire Recyclers, LLC, 2019 OK 37, 2019 Okla. LEXIS 37 (May 21, 2019)]. The high court held a wrongful discharge claim was not an action with a guaranteed right to trial by jury under the state constitution, nor did the statute violate claimants due process rights.

Background

Southon was employed by Oklahoma Tire Recyclers, LLC (“the employer”). On September 13, 2016, Southon sustained a work-related injury and filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits. The employer fired Southon less than a month after he suffered the injury. Southon filed a civil action in a county District Court, alleging the employer terminated him as retaliation for seeking workers’ compensation benefits. Southon’s petition further requested a declaratory ruling that 85A O.S.Supp. 2013 § 7 was unconstitutional.

The employer sought to dismiss the action, arguing that the Commission, and not the district court, had sole jurisdiction over wrongful termination claims involving workers’ compensation benefits. The district court judge entered an order sustaining the employer’s Motion to Dismiss. Further, the lower court found section 7 did not violate the Oklahoma Constitution. Southon appealed the ruling and the Supreme Court retained the case.

Wrongful Termination: Statutory Creation—No Right to Jury

The Court observed that the state did not adopt a workers’ compensation system until 1915 and that the first cause of action for wrongful termination of an employee for filing a workers’ compensation claim was created in 1976 and codified as part of the Workers’ Compensation Act at 85 O.S.Supp. 1976 §§ 5-7. The Court stressed that this was an important point, in that an action for retaliatory discharge predicated on the filing of a workers’ compensation claim, was a “statutory tort” created by the Legislature. It was not an action under which a trial by jury was constitutionally guaranteed.

The Court acknowledged that the right to a jury trial may be expanded by constitutional amendment, but stressed that none of the three amendments to article II, section 19 since its creation had either expressly or impliedly created a right to a jury trial for workers’ compensation proceedings or a retaliatory discharge claim. Because such an action was solely a creature of statute and not one guaranteed the right to a trial by jury at the time the Oklahoma constitution was adopted, article II, section 19 did not provide a basis for determining the relevant statute was unconstitutional.

Due Process Issue

Utilizing the legitimate government interest test, the Court found that the statute attempted to balance the legitimate purpose of providing reasonable support to injured workers against the state’s interest in protecting employers from the excessive judgments. The Court noted Southon’s argument—that the $100,000 cap was an “artificial limit on damages”—but it agreed with the employer that under the majority of circumstances that amount would reasonably compensate most injured workers while also protecting employers from unlimited monetary exposure. As such, the Court said, the statute both aimed to serve legitimate government interests and was reasonably tailored to advance those purposes. In the Court’s mind, therefore, 85A O.S.Supp. 2013 § 7 did not deny Southon due process in violation of article II, section 7 of the Oklahoma Constitution or Amendment XIV of the U.S. Constitution.

Special Law Allegation

The “Special Law” test in Oklahoma essentially examines the issue of equal protection. In short, the Legislature may not unreasonably differentiate between two classes of similarly situated parties. Here Southon argued that section 7 wrongfully classified workers’ compensation claimants separately from other wrongful termination victims (who had redress in the state courts).

The Court said the salient issue was whether the statute targeted less than an entire class of similarly situated persons for different treatment. The Court concluded that section 7 did not. It treated all employees who are discharged for pursuing workers’ compensation benefits in an identical manner. The Legislature was within its right to determine that a worker discharged for filing a workers’ compensation claim was better protected by an administrative remedy than by tort liability. The Court concluded, therefore, that 85A O.S.Supp. 2013 § 7 was not an unconstitutional special law.

Additional Reading on the Issue

For additional material on the issue of retaliatory discharge, see Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law, § 104.07.

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