Update on OHRC elimination

published in Oklahoma Employment Law Letter | July 1, 2012

As noted in our June newsletter, in 2011, the Oklahoma Legislature passed a bill eliminating the Oklahoma Human Rights Commission (OHRC), effective June 30, 2012, and creating a new Office of Civil Rights Enforcement (OCRE) in the Attorney General’s (AG) Office, effective July 1, 2012. There was some question, though, whether that actually would happen because the legislature failed to pass the related implementing legislation during this just-completed session. We have now clarified with both the OHRC and the AG that it did indeed occur on July 1, despite the failure to pass the implementing legislation. Therefore, as of July 1, employment discrimination complaints under Oklahoma law are handled by the AG.

Change is a-coming

Once the OCRE’s office is functional (it remains to be seen when that will occur because the practical difficulties of establishing such an office are significant), we expectincreased enforcement activities and more aggressive enforcement, including a rise in the number of actual lawsuits filed by the state against private-sector employers. That conclusion is based on statements to that effect by the AG’s office. Also, because of some negative publicity over the OHRC’s closure, don’t be surprised if the AG conducts some high-profile investigations to send a message that it is serious about civil rights enforcement.

Additionally, the AG has confirmed that his office has no intention of renewing the work-sharing agreement between the OHRC and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). If there is no work-sharing agreement between the state and federal agencies, it affects the entire administrative process and means that an employee must file separate claims with both agencies to preserve state and federal discrimination claims and both agencies can pursue independent simultaneous investigations. That could leave an employer fighting a battle on two fronts.

What happens next?

One open question is when the work-sharing agreement will end. Under its terms, it is set to expire on September 30, but the agreement is between the now-defunct OHRC and the EEOC ? the AG is not a party to the contract, perhaps meaning it will expire on June 30. We’ll keep you posted on how things develop.