In a recent decision, Utah Federal District Court Judge Dale Kimball sustained two employees' claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress against their former employer. The lawsuit was filed by a husband and wife who both worked for the same employer. They alleged that the employer's treatment of them after learning that the husband had AIDS was so callous and manipulative as to be actionable under the very high standard governing Utah's common-law tort of "outrage." Judge Kimball agreed that the conduct described in their complaint, if proven, was "of such a nature as to be considered outrageous and intolerable in that [it] offend[s] against the generally accepted standards of decency and morality."
Husband Terminated and Wife Forced to Quit Due to Disability
The employer became aware of the husband's illness when he was required to take a health-related leave of absence from his employment. After he obtained a medical release and returned to work, two of his co-workers approached his wife and told her that no one wanted to work with her husband because he had AIDS. The co-workers asked the wife to tell her husband that no one wanted to work with him, which she did. On the following day, one of the co-workers came to their home and told the husband that his employment was terminated because he had AIDS and no one wanted him around the workplace. Shortly thereafter, the other co-worker again approached the wife at work and asked her to pressure her husband to withdraw his claim for unemployment benefits; he told her that if she were not able to persuade her husband to withdraw his claim, the employer would come down hard on her.
At that time, the wife was the sole source of income and medical coverage for her family (her husband's employment having been terminated), and she believed that her employer was exploiting her family's situation to magnify the force of its threat. Fearing the workplace stress that would inevitably accompany her husband's decision not to withdraw his claim for benefits, the wife quit her job. The couple then sued their former employer, asserting that the employer was liable for negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Their case was based on their conviction that their employer's manipulation of their difficult situation met the very high legal standard necessary to sustain those claims under Utah common-law. Additionally, the wife sued for constructive discharge based on her belief that the circumstances of her employment had become intolerable.
Emotional Distress and Constructive Discharge Claims Survive Legal Challenge
The court summarily dismissed the plaintiffs' claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress, pursuant to the exclusive remedy provision of the Utah Workers' Compensation Act which states, in effect, that if a claim is compensable under the workers' compensation scheme it cannot be pursued in a separate civil action. However, the exclusive remedy provision contains an exception where "it is shown that the employer intended or directed the act which caused the emotional distress." In that instance, an employee is permitted pursue a civil action to recover damages for the emotional distress caused intentionally by the employer through its agents. Judge Kimball cited an opinion of the Utah Supreme Court (authored by former Chief Justice Michael Zimmerman) for the proposition that egregious misconduct in violation of an employee's federally protected civil rights, when performed with the intent of inflicting emotional distress, will sustain an actionable claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress under Utah common-law. Thus the employees' claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress based on their co-workers' egregious misconduct (presumably authorized or otherwise endorsed by their employer) in violation of the husband's federally protected right under the Americans with Disabilities Act (the "ADA") to a workplace free from disability-based discrimination, survived the employer's motion for summary judgment.
The wife's constructive discharge claim also survived summary judgment. Under the governing legal standard, she was required to "allege facts sufficient to demonstrate under an objective test that a reasonable person would have viewed her working conditions as intolerable." Without analysis, the court rejected the employer's assertion that the facts as alleged failed to meet the objective standard, ruling simply that the facts alleged were sufficient to sustain her claim.
Although employers frequently discount the viability of claims asserted under the rubric of emotional distress, this case demonstrates that if it can be shown that an employee's federally protected rights have been violated, behavior that might otherwise be considered insufficiently egregious to satisfy the very high legal standard of "outrageous and intolerable" conduct is more likely to survive a motion for summary judgment, and require a trial on the merits for resolution.