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Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals rules on Carter County judgment in 2018 wrongful termination suit

Sierra Rains
srains@ardmoreite.com

The Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals ruled on a Carter County trial court judgment in a 2018 wrongful termination suit this week.

Former Carter County employee Becky Wright appealed the trial court judgment entered after a jury verdict finding in her favor but awarding her no damages, according to court records.

The wrongful termination suit was filed against the Carter County Board of Commissioners in Sept. 2016. After the lawsuit went to trial in Nov. 2018, the jury found that Wright was wrongfully terminated after reporting alleged criminal misconduct by then Carter County Clerk Cynthia Harmon.

In her appeal, Wright asked that the verdict be set aside, asserting that the verdict was internally inconsistent and that the trial court erred in admitting evidence of criminal convictions, instructing the jury and improperly denied her First Amendment claim.

According to court records, Wright argued that the verdict was internally inconsistent because the jury found in her favor but awarded her no damages. Wright suggested that the evidence showed she suffered approximately $19,000 in lost wages and suffered emotion distress.

Wright also raised the trial court’s decision to grant summary judgment on her First Amendment claim, stating that the court dismissed the claim with only a cursory explanation.

Wright argued that because Harmon had the authority to hire and fire her own deputies, her final decision making authority was sufficient enough to hold the board of commissioners liable for violating her First Amendment rights. However, according to court records, the trial court alleged that the county could not be held responsible.

The Board of Carter County Commissioners entered a counter-appeal to Wright’s, suggesting that none of Wright’s propositions of error require a new trial and asked that the court consider its propositions of error only if a new trial is granted.

After review of the record and relevant law, the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals affirmed the judgment on the wrongful termination claim, but concluded that Wright failed to show prejudicial error in the trial court’s admission of evidence, instructions to the jury or acceptance of the jury verdict.

However, the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals did find that it was error to grant the board of commissioners a motion for summary judgment as a matter of law on Wright’s First Amendment claims.

The court stated that the summary judgment on Wright’s claim of retaliation for exercise of her First Amendment rights must be reversed and remanded for further proceedings, meaning it will be returned to a lower court for reconsideration.

Lastly, the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals found no basis for ordering a new trial on the wrongful termination issue tried to the jury in Nov. 2018, meaning that the Carter County Board of Commissioner’s counter-appeal will be dismissed.