Can you sue your employer for emotional distress?


For many people, stress in the workplace is simply unavoidable. Whether it’s an overbearing boss, grueling hours, or awful coworkers, it’s safe to say that everyone has to deal with some level of unsavory business at work. However, while routine stress is normal, it’s not okay when an unhealthy work environment leads to mental conditions like anxiety, depression, or insomnia. Anytime a job threatens your mental or physical health, it’s important to take a step back and assess what your options are to alleviate the problem.

In the ideal world, the employer should have internal procedures to address the problems that are causing you emotional distress. If it’s an abusive manager, the human resources department can launch an investigation, validate your complaint, and remedy the issue with a reprimand, transfer, or termination. If the problem is with your coworkers, there should be a similar process with the same outcomes.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in the perfect world where the ideal scenario always plays out fairly. Employees who suffer mental anguish from a hostile work environment are often forced to seek redress on their own. In such cases, the first step is always to consult with an attorney to evaluate your options.

Depending on the circumstances regarding your emotional distress, one of the solutions that your attorney may recommend is to file a lawsuit against your employer. Emotional distress cases are complex and can be challenging to prove, but they offer the opportunity to seek monetary damages from the employer to compensate you for your pain and suffering.

What is emotional distress?

Emotional distress—sometimes referred to as mental anguish—is a state of mental suffering that is the direct result of an extreme situation. To be successful in court, your emotional distress must be severe enough that no person could be reasonably expected to endure it. It helps when the emotional distress accompanies physical injuries (as these are easier to physically see and quantify), but physical injuries aren’t always necessary.

In some cases, it may be enough for a medical professional to certify that you have a severe case of anxiety, depression, insomnia, panic attacks, or suicidal thoughts. The court could even rule in your favor if your emotional distress takes the form of embarrassment, fear, or shame, providing a reasonably person would be unable to cope with your mental distress.

How to successfully prove an emotional distress claim

In an emotional distress case, it’s important to differentiate between negligent infliction and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The difference is based on the defendant’s state of mind before and during the harmful activity, and each form carries a different burden of proof.

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (NIED)

If your emotional distress is the result of negligent conduct, you may be able to recover damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress. The guiding principle behind NIED cases is that the defendant (the employer, employee, or both) had a legal duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid causing physical or mental harm and failed to do so. A successful NIED case will typically need to prove all three of the following elements:

  1. The defendant engaged in negligent conduct or a willful violation of a statutory duty
  2. The victim (that’s you) suffered severe mental anguish
  3. The defendant’s negligent conduct or willful violation of statutory duties was a direct cause of the victim’s severe mental anguish

Most NIED cases are filed by victims who are directly harmed by the negligent activity, but there are cases where bystanders who witness a negligent activity can sue for emotional distress. Most of these cases involve a bystander who witnessed a workplace accident that resulted in death or serious injury, and the bystander was close enough to the accident to be within the “zone of danger.”

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED)

Cases of intentional infliction of emotional distress are sometimes referred to as a “tort of outrage” because the activity in question must be outrageous, extreme, and intentionally or recklessly performed. To successfully prove an IIED claim, you’ll need to prove four important elements in the case:

  1. The employer or agent acted intentionally or recklessly
  2. The employer’s or agent’s conduct was outrageous and extreme
  3. The employer’s or agent’s actions directly caused the plaintiff’s mental anguish
  4. The resulting mental anguish is severe

There aren’t any clear guidelines on what constitutes outrageous and extreme behavior, so it can be difficult to successfully prove an IIED claim. Generally speaking, the courts have ruled that the behavior must be more than just annoyances, indignities, insults, and threats. For example, a coworker who circulates an embarrassing photo of you around the office wouldn’t qualify as outrageous and extreme. However, it may qualify for IIED if the coworker actively and maliciously harasses you on a daily basis and creates a hostile work environment that continually prevents you from doing your job.

When is an employer liable for an employee’s conduct?

Under state and federal law, an employer is legally responsible for an employee’s actions that cause emotional distress when the activities in question are within the scope of the employee’s job. Of course, if the employer consented to the employee’s activity, then it doesn’t matter whether or not the activity was within the scope of their job, as that proves that the employer was directly aware and/or involved.

The court will find an employer liable for an employee’s actions through a process called ratification. Every state has its own laws that govern the definition and process of ratification, but the general burden of proof is roughly the same. Generally speaking, you’ll need to prove the following:

  • The employer had direct knowledge of the conduct in question
  • The employer knew that the conduct was harmful
  • The employer failed to take proper steps to remedy the situation

Damages awarded for emotional distress

Damages for emotional distress are notoriously difficult to quantify. After all, how do you put a price on mental anguish? If your emotional distress results in doctor visits, hospital stays, medication, and treatment, it’s easier to place a price tag on the financial toll that the emotional distress has taken, but it’s not always that cut and dry. Even if these factors are present in your case, you may suffer the effects of this mental anguish for years to come, so the court will need to anticipate the long-term damages that you’ll incur, too.

Generally speaking, the damages awarded in a NIED or IIED claim are proportional to the severity of the emotional distress. The judge will consider the extent of the harm that you’ve suffered, how extreme and outrageous the defendant’s conduct was, and whether you’re likely to experience continuing anguish.

Need Help With An Employment Law Issue?

The state of Arizona is a great place to live and work, but knowing the employment laws will help you a lot. Whether you are a newcomer to the state or a lifelong resident, understanding your workplace protections is good for your career, and the more you know, the better.

Employment law issues can cause extreme distress and can affect productivity on the job. If you are being harassed at work, or dealing with any other employment issue, consider talking to our AZ employment law team to help you settle your case.

Call our Employment Law team at (480) 464-1111 to discuss your case today.

Contact Our Employment Law Team

Call (480) 464-1111 or fill out the form to schedule your consultation and discuss your best legal options.