A trucking company told one of its drivers that it would replace him if he refused to accept certain assignments. These assignments required him to violate federal regulations that limit the number of hours he could drive in a given period. When this came to light, the company fired him for violating regulations. His job loss caused him such severe anxiety that he needed medical attention. He later sued his former employer for infliction of emotional distress; a court awarded him $300,000.
As this case illustrates, indifference to employees’ emotional well-being can cost employers hefty penalties. What is a valid emotional distress claim? How serious must an incident be to qualify? And what can employers do to stop these claims from happening?
Emotional distress claims often accompany discrimination claims. For example, a worker who claims that the employer discriminated against him because of his race may also seek damages for emotional distress resulting from the alleged discrimination. They can also occur in conjunction with wrongful discharge suits, such as the one involving the truck driver. Courts will not hold employers liable for just any workplace incidents that upset employees. Rather, emotional distress claims must meet several requirements:
- The employer’s actions must be intentional or reckless. In the case of the truck driver, the employer knowingly gave him assignments that forced him to exceed legal limits on driving time, then fired him for following orders. An employer might demote an employee because of his age, in the belief that younger workers will perform better. Another example is an employer denying promotion opportunities for female employees because men have traditionally held those jobs. These are all intentional acts; the trucking company’s acts might have been reckless.
- The employer’s conduct must be extreme or outrageous. Some conduct is bad enough to strike an ordinary, reasonable person as meeting these descriptions. Such a person might find the trucking company’s firing of an employee for doing what he was told to be outrageous. Harassing, disciplining or firing a worker for participating in union organizing activities is illegal and might impress a jury as outrageous conduct.
- There must be a direct connection between the employer’s actions and the employee’s mental distress. If the worker was emotionally healthy prior to the incident and suffering from anxiety after, the court is likely to find that the employer caused the injury. However, if the employee had other external situations occurring at the same time (death in the family, illness, divorce, etc.), the employer could plausibly argue that the distress resulted at least partly from these other factors. The court might find the employer only partly to blame or dismiss the claim entirely.
- The employee must suffer severe emotional distress. Merely being upset about a bad day at work is not sufficient. The distress must be severe enough to require psychiatric or medical attention. An employee who felt sad for a few days after a chewing-out from his boss probably does not have a valid claim. One whose doctor admitted him to the hospital for observation and treatment probably does.
Employers can avoid emotional distress claims by clearly informing supervisors that they will not tolerate discriminatory or harassing behavior. They should also provide safe means for employees to report these types of incidents. They should keep employees’ health status in mind when making adverse employment decisions, as those suffering from serious illness are vulnerable to emotional distress. Finally, they should make all adverse employment decisions carefully and base them on valid business reasons. Taking these steps will makes these claims less likely, reduce workers’ compensation costs, and hold down employment practices liability insurance premiums.