Emotional Wellbeing

Mental Health

Self Improvement

Mandy Kloppers

Can You Sue Your Employer for Emotional Distress?

Do you leave work feeling distraught? Are you wondering whether to quit a job you love because of the way a manager or another employee treats you?

If the way you’re treated at work feels as though it’s destroying your life, you may be experiencing emotional distress. What’s more: there may be civil options to help you force the behavior to stop or even seek damages.

Can you sue your employer for emotional distress? The answer is often yes, but there are steps you need to take first. Keep reading to learn more about your legal options.

What is Emotional Distress – Legally?

Emotional distress isn’t just a feeling: it’s also a legal concept. When the law refers to emotional distress, it refers to a type of mental anguish that goes far beyond teasing or words said in anger. It also leads to further ramifications, like:

  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Humiliation/shame
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Self-destructive thoughts
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

In other words, someone giving you a hard time or even being downright mean to you isn’t pleasant, but it’s not illegal. If someone is torturing you – either with words or actions – to the point where you experience adverse effects throughout your life, then it may be emotional distress.

Under tort law, there are two types of emotional distress: negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED) and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED).

When you experience NIED, your employer’s negligence led to your distress. You need to prove that your employer had a duty of care and that they violated it, and those violations must be what resulted in your suffering.

IIED is also known as “tort of outrage.” It occurs when someone commits a behavior that is so extreme and also intentional that you experience distress. In these cases, you have to prove that the action was both extreme enough to constitute outrage and that they did so intentionally, knowing what kind of effects it might cause.

Things that Don’t Count as Extreme or Outrageous

All of us have something that can bother us – and some of those things count as a breach of politeness or social code. But it takes a lot for those things to veer into the realm of extreme or outrageous.

For example, the following things may be challenging to endure, but they don’t count as mental anguish:

  • Losing your job/getting fired
  • Your colleague’s bad or weird habits
  • Your colleague’s use of profanity or insults
  • Your colleague stealing your work or sabotaging it
  • Your colleague hurting your feelings (intentionally or not)

These things can ruin your day or even genuinely make your life harder. However, they aren’t outrageous: people swear, have weird habits, and can be mean. While unpleasant, it’s not worthy of a lawsuit.

An excellent example of a behavior that does count is gender discrimination. If your boss or colleague reprimands you for behavior based on your gender, pays you less based on your gender, and actively denies you advancement opportunities based on your gender, then you may have a case.

Another clear case appears if you get fired for being pregnant. Not only is the act illegal (as is gender discrimination generally), but you can also sue for mental anguish because it falls outside the norm of reasonable behavior.

When Can You Sue Your Employer for Emotional Distress?

The issue with suing for emotional distress is that you can only sue your employer when they’re liable. Cases can be murky when the distress is caused by a single employee of the company and isn’t part of the company policy itself.

Generally, to sue your employer, you need to prove three things:

  1. Your employer knew what was happening
  2. Your employer knew it caused you distress
  3. Your employer didn’t take appropriate steps to intervene or solve the issue

As a result, most cases need to start internally (unless it is unsafe to report the problem within the company).

You Can’t Sue Unless You Report to HR First

If you’re experiencing emotional distress at work, you typically need to make the relevant reports to the appropriate groups, including but not limited to your human resources department.

Remember that to successfully sue your employer, your employer needs knowledge of the issue. Making a formal complaint ensures there’s a paper trail, which makes it hard for your employer to deny they knew anything later.

For example, if your IIED case is related to sexual harassment, then you need to report it to your employer first. If they do nothing and you report it again, you may then be able to sue because you have a documented record of attempting to resolve the conflict, and your employer has a duty of care to you.

Of course, this is complicated when the person causing the harm is your boss or even the head of the company. It also becomes particularly tricky if you have a work culture that tends to attack victims instead of protecting them.

If you don’t feel that you can report IIED or NIED to your employer without facing retaliation, you should talk to an attorney from Preszler Law Firm first. They may identify an alternative or direct you to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for further help.

Are You Experiencing Harassment or Discrimination at Work?

There’s a big difference between a bad boss or annoying colleague and harassment and discrimination. Unfortunately, bad or even offensive habits are something we all need to put up with. However, if the behaviors are so outrageous that they cause emotional distress, then you have options.

Can you sue your employer for emotional distress? The answer is yes, but your experience needs to fit within the definition of NIED or IIED. Also, you need to work with your employer first before you sue, or a court won’t typically hear your case.

In the meantime, don’t forget to check out the free mental health resources available on our site.

Mandy X