LL&D Law
Small Oklahoma Employers Now Must Beware of Discrimination Suits

by Jami Fenner
12/1/2009 4:06:00 PM

      In a recent decision, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled employers with fewer than 15 employees now may be subject to liability for wrongful discharge based on the public policy against discrimination set forth in the Oklahoma Anti-discrimination Act (“OADA”). The Court stated: “[w]e hold that one of the primary purposes of Oklahoma’s Anit-Discrimination Act is to prohibit racial discrimination in employment and to make such discrimination a legal wrong. This purpose constitutes a general declaration of public policy on this subject. To vindicate violations of this policy, the Act provides statutory remedies in cases where employers have more than fifteen employees, while the common law provides a [common law public policy] tort to all victims of racial discrimination regardless of the number of employees.” In so holding, the Court overruled its 1995 decision in which the Court concluded the public policy embodied in the OADA was tied to the number of employees and an employee did not have a common law claim of wrongful discharge against an employer with fewer than 15 workers.

      For the plaintiff/employee in the recent case, this significant change in the law means he may proceed with his claim that his employer constructively discharged him by permitting a racially hostile work environment. The district court had dismissed the lawsuit based on the 1995 Supreme Court decision.

      For the large numbers of small employers in Oklahoma, this change in the law means it now will be necessary for such employers to spend potentially large sums of money defending themselves from allegations of discriminatory discharge. Thus, even if the employer ultimately prevails, it generally cannot get back the money it has spent on lawyers and the process. Accordingly, small employers would be wise to do as most large employers do when considering termination of an employee – consult qualified legal counsel with a background in employment matters.

Smith v. Pioneer Masonry, Inc., 2009 OK 82.



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