Employment Lawsuits and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

You spend anywhere from twenty to forty hours at work every week. You become attached to it. Your coworkers become family. So when you start having issues at work it can deeply affect your state of mind and happiness. What do you do when this mood change starts affecting every aspect of your life?  What if the cause of your emotional state is one of your coworkers, your boss, or the actions of them? You may have a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. This post will go over the basics of intentional infliction of emotional distress to help you decide if you should bring it up to your attorney.

What is Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress?

Intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) is one of the oldest wrongful acts recognized by law. The easiest way to describe it is to say that it is when one person does something that causes another person severe emotional distress. For a CA attorney to prove IIED has occurred, they must show:

  1. The defendant’s conduct was outrageous;
  2. The defendant either intended to cause the plaintiff emotional distress or acted with reckless disregard of the probability that the plaintiff would suffer emotional distress, knowing that the plaintiff was present when the conduct occurred;
  3. The plaintiff suffered severe emotional distress; and
  4. The defendant’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s severe emotional distress.

That does not really clear up much because we are stuck with three more semi-familiar, but still undefined terms: “outrageous conduct,” “reckless disregard,” and “severe emotional distress.” Luckily, California recognized this and provided us explanations for each one:

Outrageous conduct” is conduct that a reasonable person would consider intolerable in a civilized community.

Reckless disregard” is when the defendant either knew that their actions would cause severe emotional distress or gave little or no thought to the probable effects of their conduct.

Severe emotional distress” is substantial and long lasting distress that no reasonable person should be expected to deal with.

So, intentional infliction of emotional distress all boils down to your attorney convincing the jury that the defendant’s actions were so ridiculous that the everyday man would not accept them and those actions caused you severe emotional distress. 

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress Employment Law

Issues with IIED

As with every law, it is never as easy as it seems. There is always some exception that narrows the effect of the law or outright does away with it. IIED is no exception. For instance, in Agarwal v. Johnson, the Supreme Court of California quoted an old treatise saying, “[L]iability ‘does not extend to mere insults, indignities, threats, annoyances, petty oppressions, or other trivialities. . . .There is no occasion for the law to intervene . . . when someone’s feelings are hurt.” So, if your boss calls you “stupid” one time you will have a hard time winning your case despite the validity of your feelings and how it affected you.

Another issue that can arise, but is not completely barring to your claim is that of preexisting conditions. The problem with pre-existing conditions is that it can be hard to prove how much the actions of the defendant have worsened the condition. However, in Ng v. Hudson, the Court of Appeals of California stated, “Plaintiff[s] may recover to the extent that [their] condition has worsened as a result of [a] defendant’s tortious act.”

Finally, as you will see below, other comparable laws, such as worker’s compensation, can impede a claim for IIED.  Additionally, the traditional defenses of consent, privilege, etc. apply.

IIED Case Examples

State Rubbish Collector’s Ass’n v. Siliznoff

This is the case that recognized IIED as its own independent wrongful act. Usually physical injury falls under some form of assault, battery, or negligence, but in State Rubbish the employer’s threats of physical harm upon Siliznoff and his property really did a number on him. The stress caused by these threats led to him vomiting multiple times in one day and forced him into missing work for several days. The Court said, “By intentionally producing such fright it endeavored to compel him either to give up the Acme account or pay for it, and it had no right or privilege to adopt such coercive methods in competing for business. In these circumstances liability is clear.”

Taylor v. Vallelunga

In this case, Clifford Gerlach was attacked and beaten by his assailants while Gail Taylor, his daughter, was nearby. His daughter brought a lawsuit against the assailants for IIED on the basis that she witnessed the attack first hand, which resulted in severe fright and emotional distress. The California Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of this case. Why?

The problem that Ms. Taylor had with her claim is that the attackers did not know that she was Mr. Gerlach’s daughter. By not knowing of their relationship, the defendants could not have “intended to cause the plaintiff emotional distress or acted with reckless disregard of the probability that the plaintiff would suffer emotional distress” as the California law requires.

Cole v. Fair Oaks Fire Protection Dist.

This case is a complicated one. Leonard Cole enlisted as a volunteer firefighter in 1964 and was a full-time fighter within a year. As he rose up the ranks, his blood pressure rose with him due to undue pressure and harassment (including a demotion) by his assistant chief. Eventually the stress got to him and he had a “severe and totally disabling cerebral vascular accident.” This health issue left him immobile, unable to care for himself, or even able to communicate outside of blinking. This sounds like the epitome of intentional infliction of emotional distress, right? Unfortunately, the Court saw it differently and decided that because his injuries were covered by worker’s compensation laws, he could not file an IIED claim.

Employment Law IIED Pleading Abuse

As you can see from the examples above, IIED is a gamble, but this does not keep attorneys from filing lawsuits with it. On the one hand, any lawyer worth their weight in salt will make a case for as many issues as they can so as to have options. If one claim falls through, they have another to fall back on. At the same time, pleading claims that either do not fit the requirements of the law or are covered by other laws can not only frustrate the judge, but create a general mistrust of the claim altogether a la “the boy who cried wolf.” Your emotional pain is valid, but the threshold set by the case law is very high and hard to meet.

All that being said, if you feel as though you have suffered severe emotional distress due to the actions of your employer, contact an employment lawyer. Ultimately, they will know what the best course of action is and if s/he should make a case for IIED on your behalf.

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