Oklahoma Wrongful Termination Laws
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Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In Oklahoma, as in other states, employees work at will. This means an employee can generally be fired at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all.
But there are some exceptions to the at-will rule. For example, if your Oklahoma employer fires you for discriminatory reasons, in violation of an employment contract, or in retaliation for exercising your rights, you may have a legal claim against your employer for wrongful termination.
Every state’s laws on wrongful termination are different. This article covers some of the common legal grounds you might have for suing your Oklahoma employer for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of Oklahoma employment rights, which can change as courts issue new rulings and legislators pass or modify laws. To find out the full extent of your legal claims, speak to an experienced Oklahoma employment lawyer. To learn more about Oklahoma employment law, contact the office of the Oklahoma Department of Labor.
Under federal law, it is illegal for an employer to fire an employee based on a protected characteristic. Federal law prohibits employers from firing employees based on race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, age (if the employee is at least 40), disability, citizenship status, or genetic information. However, only employers with a minimum number of employees must comply with these laws. Most types of discrimination are prohibited once an employer has at least 15 employees. However, the minimum is 20 employees for age discrimination and four employees for citizenship status discrimination.
Oklahoma law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, age (40 and older), disability, genetic information, or military service. Oklahoma employers are required to comply with these laws if they have at least one employee.
These laws also make it illegal for an employer to retaliate against you for asserting your rights. For example, if you complain to your company’s HR department that you believe you were passed over for promotion because of your age, your employer may not discipline or fire you for your complaint. Likewise, your employer cannot fire you for participating in an investigation of a discrimination complaint (no matter who made the complaint), testifying in court, or making other efforts to stop discriminatory practices.
Before filing a discrimination or retaliation lawsuit, you must file a complaint with the appropriate government agency. The Oklahoma Office of Civil Rights Enforcement enforces the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination; the agency has offices in Tulsa. In many cases, state fair employment practices agencies will record your complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency that enforces federal antidiscrimination laws. However, you should check to make sure. If not, you may also have to file a complaint with the EEOC; you can find contact information for the nearest office at the EEOC’s Field Offices page.
Breach of Contract
If you have a written employment contract promising you job security, you are not an at-will employee. Oklahoma also recognizes employment contracts based on statements in an employee handbook. For example, if your employee handbook states that employees will be fired only for certain conduct, you may have implied contract of continued employment so long as you don't engage in such conduct. If you have an employment contract, and your employer fires you without good cause, you have a legal claim for breach of contract.
Wage and Hour Issues
Oklahoma employees are entitled to a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Under federal and Oklahoma law, employees who work more than 40 hours a week are eligible for overtime. Although some states require employers to offer meal or rest breaks, Oklahoma is not one of them. However, under federal law, employers who choose to provide breaks of 20 minutes or less must generally pay employees for that time. Employers also must pay their employees for any time during which they must work, even if the employer characterizes that time as a “break.” It is illegal for employers to fire employees for filing wage complaints, testifying in wage hearings, or instituting legal proceedings to recover unpaid wages.
Time Off Work
State and federal laws give employees the right to take time off work for certain civic obligations and personal responsibilities. Employers may not discipline or fire workers for exercising these rights. In Oklahoma, these rights include:
- Military leave. Under federal law, employees have the right to take up to five years of leave to serve in the military, with the right to be reinstated when they return to work. (This law also prohibits discrimination against employees based on their military service, protects employees from discharge without good cause for up to one year after they return from military duty, and provides other protections; see Nolo’s article Taking Military Leave for more information.) Oklahoma extends these rights to employees in the Oklahoma National Guard who are ordered to state active duty or full-time National Guard duty. Oklahoma also gives employees the right to take time off to attend state National Guard drills, instruction, encampment, maneuvers, ceremonies, exercises, or other duties.
- Jury duty. In Oklahoma, employees are entitled to unpaid leave for jury service, and employers may not require them to use annual, sick, or vacation leave. Employers who fire or penalize employees for jury duty may be subject to criminal sanctions and special damages in a wrongful termination lawsuit.
- Voting. Under Oklahoma law, employees are entitled to paid leave to vote. An employee is entitled to two hours off, unless more time is necessary because the employee lives at a great distance from the polling place. Time off is not required if the employee’s workday begins at least three hours after the polls open or ends at least three hours before polls close.
- Family and medical leave. Oklahoma employees are protected by the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide eligible employees with up to 12 weeks off, unpaid, every year for a serious health condition, to care for a family member with a serious health condition, to care for a new child, or to handle certain practical matters arising out of a family member’s military service. Employees can take up to 26 weeks off in a single year to care for a family member who is seriously injured while serving in the military. Employees who take FMLA leave must be reinstated to the same position once their leave is over. To learn more, see Nolo’s FMLA page.
Other State Claims
- Workers' compensation. Employers may not fire employees for exercising their rights under state workers' compensation laws, including filing claims for benefits.
- Public policy. Oklahoma prohibits employers from firing employees for acting in a manner consistent with public policy, such as reporting illegal activity by an employer or reporting other conduct that may endanger the safety of the public.
- Off-duty conduct. Employers may not discriminate against employees who engage in lawful use of tobacco while off-duty and away from the workplace.
What to Do Next
If you think you were fired illegally, talk to an Oklahoma employment lawyer. Whether you want to get your job back, negotiate a settlement, or file a lawsuit, a lawyer can help you assert your legal rights. A lawyer can also inform you of any other claims that you might have under state or local law.