Emotional Distress Claims: a Future Trend in Oklahoma?

By Charles S. Plumb

On November 1, changes to the Oklahoma Anti-Discrimination Act will go into effect that substantially restrict the ability of former employees to sue their employers for wrongful discharge in personal injury claims. But a recent Oklahoma Supreme Court decision may encourage employees’ lawyers to pursue intentional infliction of emotional distress claims against employers as a way to compensate for the new limitations on the ability to file wrongful discharge lawsuits.

In the case, Camran Durham, a 16-year-old employee at a McDonald’s restaurant, took prescription antiseizure medication during the day. During one of his shifts, he asked his manager three times to allow him to take his medication, but the manager refused each request and called him a “f____ing retard.” The employee left work crying and never returned. His mother reported that he was depressed and introverted, slept all day, and had to be homeschooled.

Durham filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming the manager’s actions violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Oklahoma’s assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress laws. The federal court dismissed all of his claims, concluding he wasn’t “disabled” under the ADA.

After the federal court’s dismissal, Durham filed suit in state court, focusing exclusively on his intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. McDonald’s argued that the state lawsuit should be dismissed because the federal court had already ruled in its favor. It also contended that its manager’s actions didn’t rise to the level of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The state court ruled in Durham’s favor, and McDonald’s appealed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which ruled that the federal court didn’t have the power or ability to rule on Durham’s Oklahoma-based emotional distress claims after it found he wasn’t disabled and threw out his ADA claim.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled Durham could proceed with the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. This decision suggests that more such infliction of emotional distress claims related to employment may be a future trend.

For more information, see the August 2011 issue of Oklahoma Employment Law Letter.

Charles S. Plumb is the editor of Oklahoma Employment Law Letter and a partner with McAfee & Taft and practices in the firm’s Tulsa office.