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Watch out! Simple harassment suits can suddenly become costly emotional distress claims

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Because damages are unlimited in Pennsylvania common-law tort claims, disgruntled employees and their attorneys sometimes try to turn run-of-the-mill harassment cases into intentional-infliction-of-emotional-distress lawsuits. The payoff can be huge.

Fortunately, the law does require the distress be genuine and the conduct “outrageous.”

Recent case: Mary, who is white, worked for the Bucks County Domes­­tic Relations Office. The agency handles paternity and child support matters. Mary had recently adopted a black infant.

Apparently as a prank, a co-worker scanned a photo of the baby that Mary kept on her bulletin board and electronically placed it in an agency document listing the county’s top 10 deadbeat parents. Then he showed it to Mary and other co-workers. Mary took offense and complained to her supervisor. The co-worker apologized and Mary accepted the apology.

A year later, Mary quit after her performance rating fell and she was told to improve. Then she sued, alleging that the prank had caused her intense emotional distress.

The agency pointed out that the co-worker had apologized and Mary had accepted the apology.

The court said that while the incident was in poor taste, there was nothing outrageous about it that would have caused severe emotional distress. It tossed out Mary’s claim. (Kasper v. County of Bucks, et al., No. 12-2504, 3rd Cir., 2013)

Final note: Of course, you should warn workers against pranks. They are productivity zappers.

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