A New Jersey judge rejected a woman’s claim that her boss inflicted intentional emotional distress by making her remove photos of her deceased daughter and her daughter’s ballet slippers from her cubicle.
As reported by Courthouse News Service, Cecelia Ingraham sued Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical, her employer for 12 years. According to the lawsuit, Ingraham’s teenage daughter, Tatiana, died from leukemia in 2005. About a year and a half after Tatiana’s death, Ingraham said her supervisor at Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical told her to remove the photos and the slippers because other employees said the items made them uncomfortable. Ingraham’s boss also told her to act as if the girl didn’t exist.
“I was still in shock. Nothing was coming out of my mouth at the time because I was still in shock and I was in disbelief,” Ingraham testified. “And I said to him, I cannot believe that. I says, I don’t see anybody avoiding me. They always come over, they give me my work.”
Ingraham said she left work that afternoon and did not return. Over the next few days, she suffered from heart palpitations and had heart surgery. After that, she resigned from her job.
According to the Legal Aid Society, proving intentional infliction of emotional distress requires that a number of legal standards be met. The employer’s behavior must be “extreme and outrageous” and go beyond what is tolerated in a civilized society.
The person suing must also have suffered extreme emotional distress that was caused by the employer’s behavior, and the employer must have either intentionally caused extreme distress or known that extreme distress would be the result of his or her actions.
The judge ruled in favor of Ortho-McNeil, stating that Ingraham’s boss did not act in a way that was “extreme and outrageous” or was “atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community,” the legal standard that must be met.
The judge also said that while a jury may have found him to be insensitive to her, Ingraham’s boss also did not act “recklessly,” meaning he did not disregard the fact that the conversation would cause her severe emotional distress. Her boss testified that whenever Ingraham talked about Tatiana, she never became extremely distraught or overcome by emotion.
“There is no question that any reasonable employer should know that telling a grieving mother not to talk about her deceased daughter might cause emotional distress,” the court said, “but a severe reaction was not a risk that one should predict.”
Legal experts say it is extremely difficult to prove that bad workplace conduct meets the threshold necessary to be considered intentional infliction of emotional distress.
“Extreme and outrageous conduct can exist in the workplace, particularly in connection with sexual harassment.,” writes the North Carolina Bar Association on their web site. “However, for the most part, intentional infliction of emotional distress claims are rarely successful in the employment context.”