Emotional Distress at Work

Being mistreated on the job can be both emotionally draining and psychologically damaging. In extreme cases, it may also be legally actionable. 

If you were mistreated by your supervisor or if you suffered a great deal of mental anguish as a result of poor conditions at work, you may be wondering:

  • Can I sue my boss for emotional distress?
  • Can I sue my employer for emotional distress? 

The answer is that it depends. This is a complicated area of law. In this article, our Los Angeles, CA employment law attorneys explain the most important things that workers need to know about employment law claims and emotional distress. 

If you have specific questions or concerns, please consult with an experienced attorney right away.

Suing Employer for Emotional Distress: The Basics

There are two types of emotional distress claims: intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress

The more severe, intentional infliction of emotional distress, involves intentional or grossly reckless extreme and outrageous conduct on the part of the perpetrator. 

With the second, negligent infliction of emotional distress, the claim involves allegations that an employer failed to act with reasonable care, thereby causing emotional distress or allowing it to occur.

How to Know If You Can Sue: Consider the Context of the Claim

If you are trying to determine whether or not it is viable to sue for emotional distress at work, it is essential that you consider the full context of your legal case. The primary issue here is that emotional stress and psychological trauma are, in a way, a type of injury. 

That matters because one of the key issues that needs to be addressed in this case is whether you have an employment law claim or a workers’ compensation case.

As described in the Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions, the workers’ compensation insurance system is generally the exclusive remedy that injured workers have against their employer for work-related injuries. 

As a general matter, this applies to both physical and psychological injuries. For example, if extreme working hours caused a serious psychological breakdown that required professional mental health treatment (a psychiatric injury), that is likely a workers’ compensation issue. 

You generally would not be able to sue your boss for emotional distress in this type of circumstance.

However, if an employee suffered emotional distress as a consequence of their state or federal employment rights being violated, they would likely have additional legal options available. 

For instance, if an employee suffered emotional distress as a result of facing racial harassment on the job or workplace sexual harassment, she could bring a claim under the California Fair Housing and Employment Act (FEHA) and she could likely sue for emotional distress as part of that claim.

Please keep in mind that suing a supervisor or employer for emotional distress is a complicated issue.

If you are considering bringing such a claim, it is essential that you consult with a top-rated Los Angeles, CA employment lawyer as soon as possible. 

Your lawyer will be able to review your case and make sure that your claim is handled properly.

Case Law: Light v. California Dep’t of Parks & Recreation

Recently, a California court weighed in on the issue of suing an employer for emotional distress in the workplace.

In the case of Light v. California Dep’t of Parks & Recreation, the California Fourth District Court of Appeals ruled that an employee had the right to sue her employer for intentional infliction of emotional distress

Notably, the appeals court overturned a lower court decision that had stated that workers’ compensation provided the sole remedy for this type of claim.

The plaintiff, in this case, was an employee named Melony Light. In her time working for the California Department of Parks and Recreation, she held a number of different specific positions, including office technician and staff services analyst. 

Eventually, poor conditions in the workplace forced Ms. Light to file a retaliation claim against her employer. 

In it, she alleged that she was subject to adverse employment actions after serving as a witness in another employee’s workplace discrimination case. 

Within her claim, she alleged that she endured a number of different adverse employment actions, including:

  • Severe workplace isolation;
  • Being moved to a less favorable office location;
  • Denial of promotion;
  • Loss of hours; and
  • Verbal “and to some extent” physical attacks.

Further, as part of her workplace retaliation claim, she sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

In the key part of its decision, the appeals court concluded that California’s workers’ compensation insurance system is not the sole remedy for employees seeking financial compensation for this type of claim. 

Specifically, the appeals court pointed to a history of California authorities asserting that an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim can be pursued in the employment context when the actionable conduct also forms the basis for a Fair Housing and Employment Act (FEHA) claim.

The Takeaway: You May Be Able to Sue Your Boss for Emotional Distress

The aforementioned case highlights the most important thing that California employees need to know about suing their employer or their supervisor for emotional distress. 

To bring an emotional distress lawsuit, the underlying conduct must be related to some other employment violation, such as discrimination.

When emotional distress or another type of psychiatric injury arises out of a normal employment environment, then it is likely a workers’ compensation matter. 

In this situation, the plaintiff likely will not be able to sue for emotional distress. 

However, when emotional distress arises out of discriminatory practices or an unlawful hostile work environment, an intentional infliction of emotional distress lawsuit may be possible.

Get Help From Our Los Angeles Employment Attorneys Today

 At Workplace Rights Law Group LLP, we are committed to protecting the rights and interests of employees throughout Southern California.

If you are considering suing your boss or employer for emotional distress, you need professional legal support. To set up a free, fully confidential initial consultation, please contact us at our Los Angeles law office.

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