Pretty Much Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Claims for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

Ingraham v. Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical, 422 N.J. Super. 12 (App. Div. 2011).  This case arose out of the reactions of defendant, plaintiff’s employer, to plaintiff’s deep and continuing grief over the death of her daughter, a bright and talented high school student, from acute lymphocytic leukemia.  Long after her daughter’s death, plaintiff would talk about it with co-workers.  Plaintiff also displayed pictures of her daughter, as well as her daughter’s ballet shoes, in her cubicle.   

Plaintiff’s superivsor eventually told her that she had to remove the pictures and the ballet shoes, and that she must stop discussing her daughter’s death with other employees.  The supervisor said that other employees were being made uncomfortable by the subject.  As a result, they tended to avoid contact with plaintiff and instead to take work or questions to others instead.

Plaintiff was devastated.  She left work that day “crying” and “sobbing.”  “Over the next few days, she went to her cardiologist for heart palpitations and subsequently was treated with an angioplasty procedure and medication.”  She took disability leave and eventually resigned from her position.

Plaintiff sued defendant for intentional infliction of emotional distress and on other bases.  Plaintiff later stipulated to the dismissal of her claims other than emotional distress.  The Law Division granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment on that claim.  In an opinion by Judge Ashrafi, the Appellate Division affirmed, even while noting that the evidence was “troubling and naturally invoking sympathy for plaintiff.”

The panel’s opinion described the elements of intentional infliction of emotional distress, and held that plaintiff could not, as a matter of law, show two of those elements:  1) that defendant acted intentionally or recklessly, and 2) that defendant’s conduct was “so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”  Judge Ashrafi provided a comprehensive listing and description of the few cases in which sufficiently extreme conduct was found, and another list of cases in which conduct was insufficient to meet the test.  His opinion also cited a number of cases for the proposition that “conduct in the workplace will rarely be so egregious as to give rise to a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

Judge Ashrafi analyzed plaintiff’s version of her meeting with her supervisor.  He concluded that while the supervisor might be seen as “insensitive and perhaps negligent of plaintiff’s vulnerability in her continuing bereavment,” the supervisor’s conduct was not sufficiently outrageous to support an intentional infliction claim.  Likewise, there was no evidence that the supervisor intended to cause plaintiff or emotional distress.  “His purpose was to address a workplace issue of efficiency and co-worker relationships,” with no evidence of any ulterior, malicious motive.

Finally, though defendant should have known that telling a grieving mother not to talk about her deceased daughter might cause emotional distress, plaintiff’s severe reaction was not predictable.  “An employer is not charged under tort law with a duty to avoid all emotional distress to employees,” but only such distress that is extreme, outrageous, and utterly intolerable. 

This opinion is a good resource for anyone litigating, or contemplating litigating, an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim.  It also shows how hard it is for a plaintiff to win on such a claim.