A lousy work experience is bad enough, but it can get worse if you seek relief from our legal system. You may even experience an injury that therapist Karin Huffer calls “Legal Abuse Syndrome.”
How the law deepens fractures in the employment relationship
In a provocative, disturbing pamphlet titled The Law in Shambles (2005), labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan reminds us that, whereas the contractual grievance process in a union-management setting often contemplates a continuing or perhaps repaired employment relationship, resolution of work-related disputes for the vast majority of workers who are not in unions can be so imbued with anger, accusation, and expense that the parties only grow further apart even if they move closer to a legal settlement of their differences. (Granted, it’s not easy for union members either.) Geoghegan concludes:
…(T)his tort-type legal system, which replaces contract, is a system that feeds on unpredictability and rage. A white-hot, subjective tort-based system with the threat of “discovery” replaces a cooler, more rational, contract-based one which was modest, and cheap, and kept us from peering, destructively, into one another’s hearts.
Of course, certain types of claims, such as actions for discriminatory, harassing, and bullying behaviors, may be unavoidably confrontational and emotional, regardless of venue. Nevertheless, Geoghegan’s larger point still holds: The resolution of employment disputes in America often leads to bitterness, acrimony, and fractured relationships between workers.
Exacerbating a traumatic work experience: Legal Abuse Syndrome
In addition, the very experience of resolving an employment dispute can prolong and intensify the impact of traumatic work experiences on individuals. A plaintiff in an employment dispute will have to repeat her story numerous times, possibly face cross-examination in multiple proceedings, and have many parts of her life portrayed and questioned in excruciating detail. A case that does not settle may take years to resolve, making it difficult for parties to achieve closure and attempt to put the event behind them.
For targets of workplace bullying, the situation can be even worse, as the likelihood of success diminishes for those who must navigate an inadequate smorgasbord of potential legal claims in an attempt to obtain relief and justice.
Their challenges resonate with the perspective of therapist Karin Huffer, whose 1995 book Legal Abuse Syndrome examines “the pain caused by . . . psychological reaction to profound and prolonged injustice” inflicted by the legal system. Huffer understands how the legal system itself creates and exacerbates mental anguish for people who already have faced enough of it in the experiences that brought them to court in the first place.
Huffer considers Legal Abuse Syndrome to be a type of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, “a personal injury that develops in individuals assaulted by ethical violations, legal abuses, betrayals, and fraud.” From her webpage, she adds:
Legal Abuse Syndrome is a public health menace in this country. It leads to massive medical intervention costs, burdens insurance companies, and adds to Medicare and Social Security costs. Most painfully, it crushes the brilliance and creativity of its sufferers. Legal Abuse Syndrome is detrimental to all of society, and nobody is immune.
…When litigants are unable to get fair resolution to their issues, when the court dysfunction further adds to the litigant’s burden, when no amount of actual case law compels an equitable outcome, litigants suffer often disabling levels of stress. When further attempts to achieve redress fail, litigants display the hallmark signs of Legal Abuse Syndrome (LAS).
Where does this lead us?
At least three points come to mind:
1. We need to encourage employers and their lawyers to act preventively.
2. We need to reform our systems for resolving employment disputes.
3. We need to enact legal protections for targets of severe workplace bullying.
Parts of this post were adapted from my law review article, “Employment Law as if People Mattered: Bringing Therapeutic Jurisprudence into the Workplace”: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1462406
For Huffer’s Legal Abuse Syndrome website: http://www.lvaallc.com/