Many employment lawsuits begin because a worker becomes the victim of discrimination or retaliation that results in some form of adverse employment action such as a demotion, pay decrease, or termination. In some cases, however, an employee has no physical evidence that he or she has been discriminated or retaliated against but is instead suffering from some sort of emotional damage as a result of the unfair treatment. In these instances, the employee may actually be a victim of intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED).
IIED is a concept based in tort law, and a claim of IIED is typically treated the same regardless of whether or not the conduct that led to the emotional injury occurred in the workplace. In order for IIED claim to succeed against an employer, the employee must show that the employer subjected him or her to extreme or outrageous conduct with the intent to inflict emotional harm. Furthermore, the employee must prove that the unfair treatment caused actual emotional distress that displayed some physical manifestation. In other words, the plaintiff must be able to show that the emotional harm was so great as to cause physical illness or inability to continue work.
Often one of the hardest elements to prove in an IIED case is the extremity or outrageousness of employer’s conduct. Although an employee who is fired may suffer severe emotional distress that would otherwise meet the other elements of an IIED claim, simply being fired is not an example of extreme or outrageous conduct. Minor annoyances, foul language, and other small deviations from socially acceptable behavior do not qualify, either. If, however, the employee was so horribly abused, ridiculed, or unfairly treated that the average person would consider the conduct to be absurd, ridiculous, or outrageous, then the aggrieved employee may have a valid IIED claim, as long as the other elements have also been met.
Intent is another element of an IIED claim that can be difficult to prove. As mentioned, minor infractions are often not considered outrageous and usually are not considered intentional because they can simply be the result of social miscues or misunderstandings. Since conduct that is considered outrageous must be severe, it is often easy to link severely troubling conduct with intent. In other words, if an employer treats an employee so horribly that it is considered outrageous, it is likely that the employer knew the behavior was wrong and would cause the employee to suffer emotional harm.
Bringing an IIED claim based on something that happened at work can be challenging. Because these types of claims involve two overlapping areas of law, it is important that you have an experienced and trusted attorney on your side. Not only must your attorney be aware of the special issues that are relevant in the workplace, but he must also have a strong background in tort law, from which IIED claims stem.