Justia Oklahoma Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Labor & Employment Law
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In 2017, Appellant Darlene Johnson, a school cafeteria worker for the Midwest City Del City Public Schools, fell in the school parking lot sustaining injuries. Immediately prior to this fall, Johnson had walked off the employer's facility onto an adjacent city street to take an authorized work break to smoke a cigarette. It is undisputed that (1) no injury occurred to Johnson while she was outside of the employer's facility premises, (2) Johnson was "clocked in" when she fell in the parking lot, and (3) her supervisor authorized her work break. It is further undisputed that the location where Johnson smoked her cigarette complied with the employer/school policy with regard to tobacco products. Appellant’s employer denied her claims for workers’ compensation, arguing Johnson was not in the course and scope of employment because her injuries did not occur "inside the employer's facility" within the meaning of 85A O.S.Supp.2013, section 2(13)(d). The administrative law judge awarded benefits to Johnson, finding that her accidental personal injuries occurred inside the employer's facility and arose in the course and scope of employment as defined by Section 2(13)(d). The Workers' Compensation Commission reversed this decision finding the administrative law judge misapplied the law and determined that Johnson was not in the course and scope of employment at the time of her injuries because the parking lot was not "inside the employer's facility." The Court of Civil Appeals affirmed the Commission. After its review, the Oklahoma Supreme Court vacated the Court of Civil Appeals’ opinion, holding that the decision of the administrative law judge was neither against the clear weight of the evidence nor contrary to law and further that the decision of the Workers' Compensation Commission was in excess of statutory authority or jurisdiction and affected by other errors of law. View "Johnson v. Midwest City Del City Public Schools" on Justia Law

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Appellant, police officer Randy Harrison, joined the Del City Police Department in 1995. He joined the Oklahoma Police Pension and Retirement System. Both he and his employer made the statutorily required contributions to this plan until he resigned from the police force in 2014. At the time he left employment he had almost nineteen years of service. On January 28, 2014 he notified the pension system of his resignation and he applied to receive a full pension benefit, claiming he had the required twenty years of credited service. On February 5, 2014, Harrison was convicted of manslaughter for the on-duty shooting and killing of a suspect who tried to shoot him. In a July 2014 letter to Harrison, his request for a full service pension was denied on the basis that he had less than twenty (20) years of credited service at the time his employment ended. In December, 2014, Harrison filed an application and requested to receive a "vested benefit" instead of the return of his accumulated contributions. This application was denied by OPPRS finding that officer's "retirement benefits were forfeited in accordance with the provisions of 11 O.S. section 1-110." Following the filing of a Petition for Judicial Review of a Final Agency Determination, the district court affirmed the order of the OPPRS. The Court of Civil Appeals affirmed. The Oklahoma Supreme Court reversed, finding that as a matter of law, Harrison had a retirement benefit that was vested within the meaning of section 1-110(A) and 11 O.S. section 50.111.1, which was not subject to forfeiture. View "Harrison v. Oklahoma Police Pension & Retirement System" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Sharla Whipple's twenty-three year old, unmarried son lost his life in a work related accident. Under the Workers Compensation Act, only a spouse, child, or legal guardian could file a Workers Compensation death benefit claim when a work related death occurs. Whipple's son had no spouse, child or legal guardian. Consequently, Whipple's only remedy was to file a wrongful death action. However, the trial court granted partial summary judgment against Whipple, determining that her only remedy was limited to the Workers Compensation system, rather than the district court. Whipple appealed. The Oklahoma Supreme Court held that the right of a parent as the next of kin to bring a wrongful death action when the decedent was an adult, unmarried, and childless, was established in the law pursuant to 12 O.S. 2011 section1053 and by art. 23 section 7 of the Oklahoma Constitution. Therefore, the Legislative attempt to limit recovery for wrongful death pursuant to 85A O.S. Supp. 2014 section 47 to a spouse, child or legal guardian dependent on the decedent was a nullity. "The Okla. Const ... prohibits the abrogation of the right to recover for injuries resulting in death. The Legislature may limit the recovery, but may not eliminate the right to recover." View "Whipple v. Phillips & Sons Trucking" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Shelli Farley, a surviving spouse of a former City of Claremore fireman, successfully obtained a death benefits award in the Workers' Compensation Commission. She then brought a District Court action for damages alleging the death of her spouse was caused by negligence and an intentional tort committed by her spouse's employer who was a local government entity. She argued her action was also for the benefit of her surviving child, as well as the surviving parents and brother of the deceased. The Oklahoma Supreme Court concluded after review of the trial court record, that a tort action for damages suffered by a surviving spouse, surviving child, and parents of a deceased adult child did not survive for the purpose of a 12 O.S. 1053 wrongful death action when: (1) The wrongful death action arises from an injury compensable by an exclusive workers' compensation remedy and the tort action is brought against the employer of the deceased; and (2) the employer can claim sovereign immunity. In this case, the wrongful death injury was adjudicated and compensated by a successful workers' compensation claim after the death of the decedent. This successful adjudication demonstrated the decedent's injury was exclusively before the Commission and not cognizable as a District Court claim at the time of decedent's death. The parents' action for loss of companionship damages was extinguished at the time of decedent's death and did not survive. And the City was immune from suit because the tort claim against it was for liability for an injury properly compensated by a claim before the Workers' Compensation Commission. The brother of the deceased did not possess a wrongful death § 1053 action for loss of consortium. Furthermore, the Court concluded plaintiff lacked standing to seek injunctive relief. Dismissal of this case was affirmed. View "Farley v. City of Claremore" on Justia Law

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Appellant Thomas Southon was employed by Oklahoma Tire Recyclers, LLC ("Employer"). In 2016, Southon sustained an injury while on the job and filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits. Employer fired Southon less than a month after he suffered the injury. Southon filed an action alleging Employer terminated him as retaliation for seeking workers' compensation benefits. Southon's petition further requested a declaratory ruling that 85A O.S.Supp. 2013 section 7 was unconstitutional. Employer moved to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction, arguing that under section 7 Southon's exclusive, and constitutionally sufficient, remedy was before the Workers' Compensation Commission and not the district court. The district court found 85A O.S.Supp. 2013 section 7 was constitutional, and agreed that the Workers' Compensation Commission had exclusive jurisdiction over Southon's claim and sustained Employer's motion to dismiss. Southon appealed, and this matter was retained and made a companion case to another cause concerning the same statutory provision. The issues presented for the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s review were: (1) whether 85A O.S.Supp. 2013 section 7 unconstitutionally restricted a plaintiff's right to jury trial; (2) whether section 7 denied Southon his right to due process; (3) whether section 7 wrongfully classifies workers' compensation claimants separately from other wrongful termination victims; and (4) whether a Burk tort was available to such plaintiffs in the district court. The Supreme Court concluded Southon's four assignments of error were without merit and affirmed the judgment of the district court. View "Southon v. Oklahoma Tire Recyclers, LLC" on Justia Law

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Appellants, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 2875 (Union), and Robert Green (Green), sought certiorari relief from the Court of Civil Appeals' (COCA) opinion affirming the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the City of Norman and reversing an arbitration award in favor of Green and Union. Green, a member of his local union, was discharged from his job with the City of Norman, Oklahoma (City). Green appealed the decision and the matter was ultimately presented to an arbitrator for a determination. The arbitrator determined there was no "just cause" for discipline and he ordered reinstatement of Green's employment. The union filed a petition in district court to enforce the arbitration award. City filed a cross petition asking the district court to vacate the arbitration award. Both parties sought summary relief from the district court. The district court denied relief to Green and granted summary judgment in favor of City. The district court held the arbitrator exceeded his authority under the collective bargaining agreement and vacated the arbitrator's opinion and award. Green and the union filed a Petition in Error; the Court of Civil Appeals affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment to City but remanded the matter for the arbitrator to resolve the issue of progressive discipline. Green and the union sought certiorari relief from the Oklahoma Supreme Court. After review, the Supreme Court held the arbitrator acted within the scope of his authority under the terms of the CBA when determining whether the City had "just cause" to discipline Green. It vacated the Court of Civil Appeals' opinion, reversed the district court and remanded this matter for further proceedings. View "American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees v. City of Norman" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Emilee Mullendore was employed as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) with Mercy Hospital in Ardmore, Oklahoma. While working during her assigned hospital shift, Petitioner entered the fifth floor nutrition room and assembled 8 separate one pound bags of ice for the patients. She then turned to open the door out of the nutrition room, took a step into the doorway and "I felt my right foot slip out to the right and then the top part of my leg and my knee turned in to the left." Petitioner immediately fell onto the floor and was unable to walk on her leg. Petitioner had worked over six hours of her shift without difficulty before her accident. At the time, Petitioner was twenty-one years old. Mullendore was evaluated in the emergency room within a few hours after the accident complaining of "right knee pain - says she just stepped and fell." Petitioner filed a claim to the Oklahoma Workers' Compensation Commission seeking the recovery of medical care for the injury and requested the reservation of the issue of whether she was entitled to recover temporary total disability benefits. Petitioner claimed she sustained a compensable injury to her right knee as a result of an unexplained fall that arose out of her performing employment related services for the hospital. Respondent-hospital denied the claim contending the injury was not work-related but was idiopathic in nature, arising out of a condition that was personal to Petitioner. Both parties retained a physician expert who conducted an exam, reviewed medical records and issued a written report. Neither expert testified at the hearing; the ALJ was provided their respective written reports. Petitioner sought review of the Workers' Compensation Commission's Order en banc, which upheld the administrative law judge's Order Denying Compensability finding that Petitioner's injury to her right leg/knee was idiopathic in origin and noncompensable under the Administrative Workers' Compensation Act. The Court of Civil Appeals affirmed the Commission en banc. After its review, the Oklahoma Supreme Court held Petitioner's knee injury was indeed a "compensable injury" within the meaning of the Oklahoma Administrative Workers' Compensation Act. 85 A O.S. Supp. 2018 section 2 (9)(a). View "Mullendore v. Mercy Hospital Ardmore" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Trina Engles received temporary total disability benefits in 2006, for a December 2, 2005 injury. She had fallen backwards in a chair at work, which caused the injury. On January 15, 2010, Engles received permanent partial disability benefits for the neck injury. She had previously suffered a non-work-related injury in 1998. That injury occurred from an electrocution and fall at her home. She had multiple back and neck surgeries as a result. Ultimately she was awarded benefits from the Multiple Injury Trust Fund based on the most recent Court of Civil Appeals decision. MITF filed a timely petition for certiorari to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, arguing the Court had never before addressed the conclusion and holding of the Court of Civil Appeals. It argued the holding that a PTD benefit claimant against MITF may reopen an underlying case during the pendency of a claim against MITF, settle the reopened claim, and then use the settlement to later obtain a MITF award after another division of the Court of Civil Appeals ruled there was no jurisdiction for claimant's claim of benefits against MITF. MITF also argued the court did not follow the Supreme Court's jurisprudence, arguing it ignored the law-of-the-case doctrine. MITF claims the court did not correctly apply the statute, ignoring the Court's case law that a change of condition for the worse was not a subsequent injury under section 172. MITF contended that Engles was not eligible for benefits as she only has one previous adjudicated injury and her change of condition for the worse just reopened the original injury. Finally, MITF argued the court determined the competence of evidence sua sponte, contradicting Oklahoma case law. The Supreme Court agreed that Engles had one adjudicated injury, and suffered no subsequent injury after her 2005 injury; she could not be a physically impaired person and the appellate court lacked jurisdiction against MITF. "Reopening a lone injury and characterizing the resulting compromise settlement as a second adjudicated injury cannot establish jurisdiction over MITF." The Court vacated the opinion of the Court of Civil Appeals and remanded this case for further proceedings. View "Engles v. Multiple Injury Trust Fund" on Justia Law

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The petitioner-employer sought review of the Workers' Compensation Court of Existing Claims which upheld a trial court's determination that respondent-employee Jennifer Hodge suffered a change of condition for the worse to her left leg/knee when she was injured in a medical facility where she was receiving medical treatment to a previously adjudicated body part. The employer urged there was insufficient evidence to support the trial court's decision because: (1) any injury arose from an intervening negligent act; and (2) there was no medical evidence to support a worsening of condition to employee's left leg/knee. The three-judge panel disagreed with Employer and affirmed the trial court. Employer then filed a Petition for Review and the Court of Civil Appeals vacated the decision of the three-judge panel. Hodge filed a Petition for Certiorari to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Granting review, the Supreme Court found competent evidence to support the decisions from the trial court and the three-judge panel. Accordingly, the Court vacated the Court of Civil Appeals and affirmed the Workers' Compensation Court. View "City of Tulsa v. Hodge" on Justia Law

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The question before the Oklahoma Supreme Court in this case centered on whether evidence in the underlying workers compensation proceeding should have been excluded by the administrative law judge, as well as the constitutionality of several provisions of the Administrative Workers Compensation Act (AWCA) that required mandatory use of the Sixth Edition of the American Medical Association's Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment (AMA Guides, Sixth Edition) to evaluate permanent partial disability (PPD). Petitioner Robert Hill was a paramedic working for Respondent American Medical Response (Employer), when he injured his right shoulder while lifting a person of large body habitus. Hill underwent surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff. After post-operative physical therapy, Hill was released at maximum medical improvement and given permanent restrictions. Employer admitted the injury and benefits were provided pursuant to the provisions of the AWCA. Employer was apparently unable to accommodate Hill's permanent restrictions, and so Hill was no longer employed with American Medical Response. Per Hill's testimony, he found work with a new employer and made approximately 25% less per year. Hill submitted a report by Dr. Stephen Wilson, who opined that Hill sustained 8% whole person impairment pursuant to the AMA Guides, Sixth Edition, and 31.8% impairment pursuant to the AMA Guides, Fifth Edition. Dr. Wilson did not express an opinion as to which rating more accurately described Hill's PPD. Employer's evaluating physician, Dr. William Gillock, asserted in his own report that Hill sustained 4.2% whole person impairment pursuant to the AMA guides, Sixth Edition. The Supreme Court determined the administrative law judge did not err by admitting the challenged evidence. Furthermore, the Court determined the mandatory use of the AMA Guides, Sixth Edition, for assessing impairment for non-scheduled members did not violate the Constitution. View "Hill v. American Medical Response" on Justia Law