Working expectant mothers in Oklahoma who feel they’ve been discriminated against because they’re pregnant have a wider berth for bringing private lawsuits — as a result of a statutory loophole closed last month and a ruling by the Oklahoma Supreme Court late last year.
Gov. Brad Henry on April 19 signed Senate Bill 1814, which amends the Oklahoma Anti-Discrimination Act (OADA) to include pregnancy as a form of discrimination — a loophole upon which a recent private case was dismissed and that all but a few states already had closed.
Meanwhile, every employer — regardless of size — can face lawsuits under the OADA, based on a November ruling. For years, state courts exempted employers with fewer than 15 employees, reasoning such cases — which have no limit on damages — could bankrupt small companies.
But in a 2009 racial discrimination case (Smith v. Pioneer Masonry Inc.
), the Oklahoma Supreme Court overruled lower courts’ decisions to dismiss the case on the size exemption, ruling no employer is immune to what are known as "Burk tort” claims alleging violation of public policy.
Federal law’s from ’78
S.B. 1814 closes a loophole between federal and state courts, said Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa, author of the bill.
The 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include pregnancy as a form of discrimination. But until last month, no state legislation amended the corresponding state law to include pregnancy.
"I’m proud we’ve closed the loophole,” Crain said. "We need to support people who are building families, and the idea of firing women because they’re pregnant is antiquated and approaching barbaric.”
Kathy Neal, an attorney with McAfee & Taft law firm in Tulsa, successfully defended the Veolia Water North America-West LLC sewage treatment company in a recent pregnancy discrimination lawsuit brought by a fired operator/lab technician who worked 11 months in its Yukon plant.
Based on the loophole in Oklahoma law, a judge in Oklahoma’s Western District in late December dismissed the employee’s Burk tort claim and the employee subsequently dropped her Title VII discrimination claim.
"In a single lawsuit, claimants generally will file as many causes of action — or alternative ways to entitled damages — as they can,” Neal said.