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Stress lawsuit OK’d even after workers’ comp

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in Compensation and Benefits,Employment Law,Human Resources

The workers’ compensation system is supposed to make it easy for employees who are injured at work to get benefits. They don’t have to sue: If they can prove they were hurt at work, they receive benefits.

Generally, this “no-fault” system bars any other lawsuits against the employer over the workplace injury. But now there’s an exception.

If an employer violates California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act—for example, by retaliating against an employee—a recent court ruling says the worker can sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress. That’s true even if she already received workers’ comp benefits for stress.

Recent case: Melony worked for a state agency, at first on a seasonal basis. She was friends with another employee whom supervisors allegedly harassed because they believed she is a lesbian. When Melony’s friend filed a complaint, an investigator spoke with her co-workers. Melony said her supervisors leaned on everyone to back up their supervisors’ version of facts or face punishment.

Melony cooperated with the investigation, and her supervisor became very angry, shouting at her and becoming physically threatening. Melony then found she had been taken off the work schedule.

She received workers’ compensation benefits for various stress-related ailments.

Then she sued, alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress. The state argued that Melony could not sue because workers’ comp is the exclusive remedy for workplace injuries.

The court disagreed. It concluded that FEHA violations such as retaliation can be the basis for direct lawsuits over emotional distress. (Light v. California, Court of Appeal of California, 2017)

Final note: Warn supervisors not to retaliate against workers who cooperate with investigations.

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