Opinion:Hernandez v. Educational Development Corp., 2022 OK CIV APP 21
Subject matter:Workers’ Compensation–Jurisdiction
Date Decided:May 6, 2022
Trial Court:District Court of Tulsa County
Route to this Court:Hernandez appealed from the trial court’s dismissal of his retaliatory discharge action against Educational Development Corporation (defendant) for lack of jurisdiction.
Facts:Hernandez suffered job-related injuries on two occasions while working for Defendant. The injuries occurred in May 2017 and around April 16, 2019. Hernandez filed for worker’s compensation benefits and was released to full duty with respect to his 2019 injury. However, regarding his 2017 injury, Hernandez was released by his physician in early February 2021 with restrictions: he would be considered Temporarily Totally Disabled (TTD) if Defendant could not provide him with light duty work. On February 17, 2021, Defendant fired Hernandez.

Hernandez filed the instant action, claiming wrongful termination under 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 §7(A)(3) and (E). Subsection 7(A)(3) prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee when the employee has in good faith instituted a workers’ compensation proceeding. Subsection 7(E) prohibits an employer from discharging an employee during a period of TTD because the employee is absent from work or for the purpose of avoiding payment of TTD benefits. The trial court granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss, claiming that the applicable statute granted jurisdiction over retaliatory discharge claims to the Workers’ Compensation Commission. Hernandez then amended the complaint to add a Burk tort claim because of a lack of statutory remedy, but the court again dismissed the suit.
Standard of Review:“This Court subjects a trial court’s judgment dismissing a petition to de novo review.” Wilson v. State ex rel. State Election Bd., 2012 OK 2, ¶4. “Because courts may only hear cases over which they have jurisdiction, the general rule that motions to dismiss are viewed with disfavor does not apply to cases in which the court finds it lacks jurisdiction.” Alexander v. Alexander, 2015 OK 52, ¶8.
Analysis:The 1976 amendments allowed employees to seek redress against the employer for taking adverse action against the employee for filing a claim, hiring a lawyer or testifying in a workers’ compensation proceeding. The district court had jurisdiction over workers’ compensation-related retaliatory discharge claims from 1976 to January 31, 2014. The Commission had jurisdiction from February 1, 2014 and May 27, 2019. Jurisdiction was then returned to the district courts on May 28, 2019. In Hopson v. Exterran Energy Solutions, 2018 OK 33, ¶3, the Oklahoma Supreme Court held that “a plaintiff’s retaliatory discharge action is based upon the retaliatory discharge statute in effect when the workers’ compensation injury occurred.”

Thus, the Court determined that 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 §7 was the applicable statute at the time of the injuries. That statute vested jurisdiction over retaliatory discharge claims with the Commission. Referencing previous case law and an Attorney General opinion, the Court found that the 2019 jurisdiction amendments to the AWCA were not retroactive, thus the Commission had jurisdiction of Hernandez’s claim.

In response to Hernandez’s Burk tort claim, the Court pointed to the fifth element “no statutory remedy exists that is adequate to protect the Oklahoma policy goal” was not met, and this was dispositive for Hernandez’s claim. Vasek v. Board of County Comm’rs, 2008 OK 35, ¶ 14. In order to come to its conclusion, the Court looked to the statutory language of 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 §7(A), (B), and (D) and found that the statute provided sufficient remedies for Hernandez’s claims, and he faced no unfair treatment because he was injured before May 27, 2019, but was terminated after that date.
Vote:3-0. Goree, J., Swinton, J., and Bell, P.J. (author) concur.
Other: N/A