Yesterday I received multiple e-mails alerting me to a jury verdict awarding some $4.7 million to an employee in a “workplace bullying case.” In fact, this is the headline that blared from a legal compliance site:
Federal Jury Awards $4.7 Million in Workplace Bullying Case
The accompanying summary by Marjorie Richter says more about the case. Here’s the lede:
An employee of a Brooklyn, New York clothing store was awarded $4.7 million by a federal jury after being repeatedly bullied by a co-worker and ultimately physically attacked. The award was for assault, emotional distress, negligence in the employer’s hiring of the bully and punitive damages.
According to the complaint, the plaintiff, a Yemen-born stock clerk, was bullied by a security guard at the store, who repeatedly called the plaintiff “bin Laden” and used other religious, racial and ethnic slurs throughout the plaintiff’s employment at the store. The security guard also made threatening physical gestures.
She goes on to describe the need for workplace bullying prevention and training, and she links registration information for the site’s online course.
The article/sales pitch may give the misleading impression that bullied workers can easily generate winning claims for emotional distress, negligent hiring, and similar causes of action.
In reality, this lawsuit illustrates the huge gap between discriminatory harassment and standard brand workplace bullying.
Although the legal compliance site frames this as a “workplace bullying” case before making a pitch for its training and compliance programs, the underlying claims are grounded in harassment on the basis of protected class status, in this case possibly national origin, religion, and race. If bullying is motivated by discriminatory animus, it may be the basis of a claim for damages under the federal Civil Rights Act and state equivalents. Furthermore, while most tort claims for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress in workplace bullying-related situations are dismissed before trial, the ones that survive are typically related to situations involving discriminatory behavior.
However, if the bullying cannot be linked to categories protected by employment discrimination laws, the target often has few, if any, viable legal protections.
In other words, the $4.7 million “workplace bullying case” only highlights the need for workplace anti-bullying laws. The push to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill must continue.
For a detailed summary of the core legal points made in this post, see my law review article, The Phenomenon of “Workplace Bullying” and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection (Georgetown Law Journal, 2000), the first in-depth examination of the American legal and policy implications of workplace bullying.