June 18, 2012 – Emotional Distress Claims Can Increase Potential Damage Award
The newspaper article last week about a federal jury awarding $25 million to a black steelworker who sued for racial harassment reads like a story from a bygone era. The plaintiff, Elijah Turley, testified at length about the racial harassment he endured at a now-defunct steel mill in upstate New York between 2005 and 2008. Turley’s coworkers taunted him by calling him “monkey” and “boy.” They wrote graffiti on the factory walls that said “KKK” and “King Kong.” They also tied a stuffed monkey, hanging by a noose, to Turley’s car.
Lawyers for Turley’s employer acknowledged that the harassment occurred but argued that plant managers took reasonable steps to stop the harassment such as hiring a private investigator, installing security cameras and suspending some employees. The jurors apparently felt that was not sufficient. They found the company liable for a hostile work environment and for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Harassment claims brought under Title VII are subject to a cap on compensatory and punitive damages depending on the size of the employer found responsible for the hostile work environment. The upper limit for such damages is $500,000. For that reason, most plaintiffs’ attorneys will routinely add an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim to a discharged employee’s Title VII discrimination claim. Recovery under this theory of liability has been severely limited in most states, however.
The discharge decision, standing alone, rarely can be a sufficient basis for an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. Most states require proof of outrageous conduct by the employer that causes severe emotional distress. For example, in Maryland, the conduct must be “so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community. The law intervenes only where the distress inflicted is so severe that no reasonable man could be expected to endure it.”
Nevertheless, the tort can be a successful adjunct to a racial harassment claim if the nature of the harassment is particularly egregious. Elijah Turley claimed the harassment he suffered left him “a physical and emotional wreck.” The prospect of a large punitive damages award was undoubtedly why Turley’s lawyer stated in his closing argument, “It’s absolutely shocking that a case like this is in court in 2012. It should be viewed as atrocious and intolerable in a civilized society.”