Oklahoma Supreme Court Upholds New Discrimination Damages Caps as Constitutional


In late February, 2014, the Oklahoma Supreme Court, in MacDonald v. Integris Health, 2014 OK 10, upheld November 2011 amendments to the Oklahoma Anti-Discrimination Act (OADA), which abrogated common law remedies for victims of status-based employment discrimination and established exclusive statutory remedies in their place.

In MacDonald, the plaintiff alleged her employer terminated her because of her gender and age in May 2012 (after the effective date of the amendments), in violation of federal and state law. She claimed that she was entitled not only to the remedies available under the ADEA and Title VII, but also “the full range of normal tort damages under Oklahoma common law for a “public policy” wrongful discharge. Anticipating that the employer would raise the OADA’s recently enacted exclusive remedial scheme as a defense, the MacDonald plaintiff alleged that the scheme was unconstitutional as a “special law” under Article V, Sections 46 and 59 of the Oklahoma Constitution.

In addressing whether the OADA’s abrogation of common law remedies and imposition of damages caps was constitutional, the Oklahoma Supreme Court noted that the state’s public policy against discrimination is established by the OADA. Accordingly, the Court found, the state legislature would act within its power to create limited statutory remedies to vindicate this public policy as long (i) it treats all victims of status-based discrimination uniformly, and (ii) the statutory remedies are sufficient to protect Oklahoma’s public policy. The Court found that the legislative amendments to the OADA do treat all victims of status-based discrimination (defined as race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information) the same by providing the same remedies to each. The Court further found that the amendments, which allow for injunctions against unlawful practices, reinstatement to employment, back pay and liquidated damages, provide an “adequate remedy” sufficient to vindicate Oklahoma’s public policy. Therefore, the Court found, the amendments do not violate Article V Sections 46 and 59 of the Oklahoma Constitution.

This is certainly good news for employers, as the statutory scheme provides more certainty in dealing with state-based claims of discrimination, and precludes recovery of compensatory damages for emotional distress and punitive damages. However, we may see additional challenges to the OADA in the future as the law develops.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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