Jessica L. Caruthers, Attorney at Law
Oklahoma is an “employment-at-will” state. This means an employee, with minimal exceptions, can choose to quit his or her job at any time. This also means that an employer, with a few exceptions, can terminate an employee’s job at any time. I frequently tell potential clients this means you can be fired, generally, for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all. An employment relationship can be terminated by either party, at any time, for nearly any reason, without the other party to the relationship having a cause of action. Just as an employee can quit a job if something better comes along, or if life circumstances necessitate a change, an employer can terminate an employee if there are complaints, or a more-qualified candidate for the position is found, or if the employer just feels like letting the employee go. An employer is not required to give a reason.
There are a few notable exceptions to “employment-at-will.” The first is that if there is a written employment contract (or terms in an employee handbook that could be construed as a contract), a termination may need to be accomplished according to the terms subscribed in the contract. Likewise, if the employment relationship is covered by a union, the terms of a collective bargaining agreement may control. Finally, if the employer is the government, an employee is generally entitled to a hearing (with notice given ahead of time) regarding a termination.
The second general exception to “employment-at-will” is that an employer cannot discriminate based on a legally protected classification such as age, gender, national origin or race, or disability in making termination decisions. For example, an employer cannot terminate a qualified female employee because it determines a man would be a better choice. Also, for example, an employer cannot legally fire someone because the employer discovers he or she is a practicing Muslim. Gender-based discrimination also includes sexual harassment.
Third, employees cannot be fired for engaging in certain legal duties/services, such as serving in the military or on jury duty, filing for workers’ compensation benefits, exercising union rights, or reporting an employer to a legal authority or investigating agency, such as the local police department, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
Finally, employers cannot terminate employees for taking legitimate leave pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or for seeking a reasonable accommodation for a disability pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
For a termination to be “wrongful” such that a civil remedy may lie, the termination generally must fit within one of these categories. One caveat – a “wrongful termination” for the purpose of a civil lawsuit is different than “wrongful termination” under Oklahoma’s rules for unemployment compensation.
For additional information, contact attorney Jessica L. Caruthers of Outhier & Caruthers, PLLC, at 580-234-6300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.