Wichita, Kan. (January 30, 2024)  - Around 215 employment lawsuits came to an end in Oklahoma in 2023. Of those 215 lawsuits, around 140 likely ended in a settlement. The defendants prevailed on dispositive briefing 28 times, with 17 summary judgment victories. Several of the more interesting or notable cases are summarized below.

Moon v. Oklahoma Dep't of Corr.

In Moon v. Oklahoma Dep't of Corr., No. CIV-22-103-PRW, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108645 (W.D. Okla. June 23, 2023), the plaintiff, Courtney Brooke Moon, alleged hostile work environment sexual harassment during her employment with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC). Moon claimed that her co-worker, Shaun Tabon, engaged in sexual conduct over two years, leading her to resign in September 2020. The defendant, ODOC, moved for summary judgment, contending that Tabon was not a supervisor and Moon failed to establish that ODOC knew of the alleged harassment.

The court rejected Moon's argument that Tabon was a supervisor, citing evidence that both Moon and Tabon held the same position without supervisory authority. The court also found Moon's self-serving deposition testimony insufficient to create a genuine dispute on whether ODOC knew about the harassment, emphasizing her failure to report it during a meeting with supervisors. Ultimately, ODOC's motion for summary judgment was granted due to the lack of evidence supporting Moon's arguments on Tabon's supervisory status and ODOC's knowledge of the alleged harassment.

Viviani v. Coffey & Assocs.

In the case of Viviani v. Coffey & Assocs., No. CIV-22-00090-PRW, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 83677 (W.D. Okla. May 12, 2023), the court addressed motions for summary judgment filed by both the plaintiff, Nina Viviani, and the defendants, Coffey & Associates, Inc., and Cy Coffey. Viviani, formerly employed by Coffey & Associates, alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), including unpaid overtime wages and retaliation for reporting an alleged kickback scheme. The court granted Viviani's motion in part, acknowledging issues related to improper deductions from her paychecks in 2019 and 2021. The court also denied the defendants' motion in part, allowing Viviani's unpaid overtime claim to proceed to trial, given the genuine dispute over the number of hours worked.

The court discussed the defendants' classification of Viviani as an exempt employee under the FLSA's professional capacity exemption. While the court recognized that Viviani's pay generally exceeded the statutory minimum, it identified a genuine dispute over improper deductions in 2019. It questioned whether her duties as a Landscape Design Manager qualified her for the professional capacity exemption. And the court found a genuine issue of material fact about Viviani's retaliation claim, citing the close temporal proximity between her reporting of the alleged kickback scheme and her termination. The court concluded that Viviani had established a prima facie case, and the defendant's reasons for termination would be scrutinized further at trial to determine whether they were pretextual.

Stephen v. Sec. Fin. Of Okla., LLC

In Stephen v. Sec. Fin. of Okla., LLC, 653 F. Supp. 3d 1077, 1079-83 (W.D. Okla. 2023), the court addressed the defendants' Motion to Compel Arbitration and Stay Proceedings under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). The plaintiff, Caroleen Stephen, sued Security Finance of Oklahoma, LLC (SFO) for age, gender, and religious discrimination and retaliation for opposing discrimination and exercising rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The defendants sought to enforce an arbitration agreement in a written employment agreement between Stephen and SFO.

The employment agreement, dated April 17, 2017, included an arbitration provision. The plaintiff challenged the validity of the employment agreement, arguing it lacked consideration and contained unconscionable provisions. Even so, the court found that the challenge did not prevent enforcing the arbitration agreement under the FAA's rule of severability. The court also noted the presence of a delegation clause, which required issues of unconscionability to be decided by an arbitrator.

In summary, the court granted the defendants' Motion to Compel Arbitration, stating that the plaintiff's challenges did not prevent enforcing the arbitration agreement. The court emphasized the rule of severability under the FAA, which allows arbitration clauses to be severed from the rest of the contract and noted the presence of a delegation clause, requiring an arbitrator to decide issues of unconscionability.

Brianne Six v. Am. Fid. Assur. Co.

In Brianne Six v. Am. Fid. Assur. Co., No. CIV-22-175-SLP, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 74226, at *28-38 (W.D. Okla. Apr. 28, 2023), the plaintiff Brianne Six, a former employee at American Fidelity Assurance Co., brought multiple claims including an FMLA retaliation, an FMLA interference, and a Title VII gender discrimination claim.
To support her FMLA retaliation claim, the court applied the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. American Fidelity acknowledged its burden of production by providing a facially non-retaliatory motive for Six's termination.The critical issue revolved around Six's establishment of a prima facie case, requiring her to establish engagement in protected activity, a materially adverse action, and a causal connection. Although American Fidelity contested the causation element, emphasizing the temporal gap between Six's FMLA leave initiation and her termination, the court found that Six successfully established her prima facie case.

The court considered the nine-week gap, along with evidence that Six's leave coincided with a peak workload period, contributing to an inference of causation. The court thus ruled that American Fidelity was not entitled to summary judgment on the FMLA retaliation claim.

The court also addressed the FMLA interference claim, distinct from Six's FMLA retaliation claim. American Fidelity approved Six's request for intermittent FMLA leave. They argued her claim was invalid because she never took time off during the approved period. Drawing on prior precedent, the court disagreed with American Fidelity's position, emphasizing that approval for intermittent FMLA leave could serve as the basis for an interference claim. Six successfully established the first element of her claim by showing approval for intermittent FMLA leave from October 6 through December 31. To satisfy the second element, she needed to show prevention from taking the full 12 weeks of FMLA leave, denial of reinstatement, or initial denial of permission to take leave. American Fidelity contended that her termination was based on performance issues unrelated to FMLA leave, but the court found enough evidence to dispute this claim. The court concluded that Six provided sufficient evidence for her FMLA interference claim to proceed to a jury trial.

In the same case, Six also asserted a Title VII gender discrimination claim against American Fidelity. To establish a prima facie case, Six needed to show she was a qualified member of a protected class, terminated despite being qualified, and that her job wasn't eliminated. The court found that Six met this burden by presenting evidence of her positive performance evaluations, satisfactory job performance, and long tenure with the company. American Fidelity, in response, provided a facially nondiscriminatory reason for termination, shifting the burden back to Six to show pretext. She presented evidence of a comparator employee, Mr. A, who received different treatment despite facing similar performance issues. The court determined that this evidence, coupled with the overall deficiencies in American Fidelity's investigation, was sufficient to raise a genuine question about the sincerity of the employer's justification. As a result, the court ruled that Six had proffered enough evidence to allow her Title VII gender discrimination claim to proceed to a jury trial.

Burr v. Mittal

In Burr v. Mittal, No. 23-CV-071-CVE-JFJ, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136536, at *1 (N.D. Okla. Aug. 7, 2023), the plaintiff Dana Burr, a certified surgical technician, sued Bristow Endeavor Healthcare, LLC, doing business as the Center for Orthopaedic Reconstruction and Excellence (CORE), and Dr. Yogesh Mittal, alleging claims of sexual harassment and negligence. Burr asserted that Dr. Mittal engaged in persistent inappropriate behavior, including sexual comments and requests for explicit photos, creating a hostile work environment.

CORE sought to dismiss Burr's negligence claim, contending that the Oklahoma Anti-Discrimination Act (OADA) provided the exclusive remedy for workplace discrimination claims, and Burr's negligence claim was based on the same facts as her discrimination claims.

Burr argued that her negligence claim fell within the “highly personal” exception to ordinary workplace discrimination claims. The court analyzed the OADA's exclusive remedy provision, which abolished common law remedies for workplace discrimination claims, and concluded that Burr's negligence claim against CORE was essentially a workplace discrimination claim based on the same underlying conduct. And so, the court dismissed Burr's negligence claim, determining that it fell within the scope of the OADA's exclusive remedy provision.

The court's decision highlights the interplay between statutory workplace discrimination claims and common-law tort claims, emphasizing that the exclusive remedy provision of the OADA precludes common-law claims arising from the same factual allegations as discrimination claims unless they fall within a recognized exception, such as the “highly personal” nature of the tort.

Stoddard v. Stops

Finally, in Stoddard v. Stops, No. CIV-21-308-F, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 95452, at *1-9 (W.D. Okla. June 1, 2023), the court addressed an interesting question about the enforcement of class action waivers for pending FLSA class members.

In his case against Love's Travel Stops & Country Stores, Inc., the plaintiff, James Stoddard, and others alleged willful violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The complaint claimed that Love's Travel Stops misclassified its operations managers, failed to pay them overtime wages, and sought conditional certification of a collective action under the FLSA. Love's Travel Stops moved to compel arbitration for 151 opt-in plaintiffs, contending that they had entered into a Mutual Dispute Resolution Agreement (MDRA) agreeing to arbitrate their FLSA claims individually. The plaintiffs objected, arguing that the MDRA was improperly obtained and sought to find it unenforceable.

The court considered the circumstances of the execution of the MDRA by the opt-in plaintiffs and found that, despite objections, the agreement was enforceable. The court determined that the omission of the lawsuit's existence from the MDRA was not misleading, and there was insufficient evidence that Love's Travel Stops had notice of the lawsuit when the opt-in plaintiffs signed the MDRA. As a result, the court granted Love's Travel Stops' motion to compel arbitration, directing the 151 opt-in plaintiffs to pursue their FLSA claims individually through arbitration and staying the current judicial proceedings for those plaintiffs pending arbitration.

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