OPEA plans to sue Oklahoma Health Dept. on behalf of 161 ‘wrongfully terminated’ employees

Oklahoma Public Employees Association officials announced Tuesday that they plan to sue the Oklahoma State Department of Health to seek compensation on behalf of 161 members they said were wrongfully terminated by the agency.

Officials said the 161 members were terminated in Dec. and March. The former employees were terminated, forced to resign or take early retirement due to the department’s mismanagement and mishandling of state finances, officials with the OPEA said.

Nearly 200 employees were laid off from the department in the midst of budgets cuts as well as an investigation into mismanagement of funds. A multicounty grand jury later determined that the department was never insolvent and nearly 200 layoffs were unnecessary.

“These employees were terminated or forced to retire because Health Department officials claimed they had a $30 million budget shortfall but that claim was false. The premise used by the health department was wrong and their actions caused financial, mental and emotional hardship for those employees,” said Sterling Zearley, executive director of the association. “We’ve tried to work with the Health Department administration to fix this but they don’t seem interested in correcting it.”

The association’s attorney, Kevin Donelson, of Fellers Snider Attorneys at Law, said it is the firm’s assessment that the OPEA and the employees have certain legally viable tort claims against the Health Department stemming from the layoffs.

The notice of claim is required by state law before pursuing legal action. The notice was sent to the Health Department on Sept. 28 and it has 90 days to respond, officials with the OPEA said.

Health Department officials released the following statement in response to the planned lawsuit:

“We regret the impact that the Reduction-In-Force had on our former employees. The agency had been in discussions with OPEA and their counsel, and there are still legal and financial questions that must be carefully reviewed surrounding the Reduction-In-Force. OSDH has also aggressively engaged in recalling classified positions that were vacated during the Reduction-In-Force. We feel the strain on our service delivery around the state, primarily in County Health Departments, from this forced departure and have tried to expedite the recall process within the boundaries of current law.”

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