There has been a battle between attorneys since the Oklahoma legislature adopted the Oklahoma Administrative Workers’ Compensation Act (AWCA) February 1, 2014. Why? Well for years prior to that date, Oklahoma had the Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA). Under the WCA, a traditional worker’s comp claim (one in which an employee sought compensation for injuries) was determined by the Worker’s Compensation Court, and claims of retaliation under that law were resolved in state district court.
In 2014, the Oklahoma legislature repealed the WCA and passed the AWCA.
With the passage of the AWCA, the Worker’s Compensation Commission was born. The Commission would hear traditional “comp claims”. It was also given “exclusive jurisdiction” to hear claims of discrimination or retaliation based upon a person exercising rights under the AWCA. If a person claims discrimination or retaliation for the exercise of rights under the AWCA, that person must file with the Commission (not a court) and the Commission, without a jury, is to determine the fate of the claim.
Suddenly, everyone was very concerned about whether the claim would fall under the WCA (a court proceeding with a jury) or the AWCA (heard before the Commission with no jury).
There were other significant changes. Under the WCA, a prevailing plaintiff could recover “reasonable damages” and could even recover punitive damages (though capped at $100,000). Each party was responsible to pay their own attorney’s fees, regardless of outcome.
Under the AWCA, a prevailing plaintiff can recover back pay, but it is capped at $100,000. There is no provision for compensatory or punitive damages. Additionally, the AWCA states that the “prevailing party shall be entitled to recover costs and a reasonable attorney fee.” 85A Okla. Stat. § 7(D). This is a game changer. Now, either party is at risk of having to pay the other’s attorney.
The issue has finally made its way to the Oklahoma Supreme Court in Young v. Station 27, Inc., decided on September 12. Ms. Young’s alleged on-the-job injury occurred in January 2013 – clearly under the WCA. She was discharged approximately thirteen months later, after the AWCA had passed. The question arose: Would her claim of retaliatory discharge be governed by the WCA (when her on-the-job injury occurred) or the AWCA (when she was actually discharged – the act of retaliation about which she complained)?
The Oklahoma Supreme Court looked to the language of the AWCA, which states an “employer may not discriminate or retaliate against an employee when the employee has in good faith: 1. Filed a claim under this act; …”. 85A Okla. Stat. § 7(A) (emphasis added). The Court held that in order for the AWCA to govern, the employee had to claim that the retaliation was for the exercise of rights under the AWCA; not workers’ compensation rights generally. When the on-the-job injury occurred, Ms. Young was exercising rights under the WCA; thus, any retaliation she may have suffered from exercising those rights would have to be vindicated under the WCA.