When an employee believes he was wrongfully fired, he may have state or federal statutory claims he may proceed with in court, such as claims of employment discrimination and retaliation. In those cases, he may assert, as part of his damages, emotional distress. However, if the facts surrounding the firing do not support such a statutory claim, the employee’s options may be limited because most employees are employees at will and as such may be fired with or without cause and or notice. An exception to the employee-at-will rule is when the employee was fired for doing something public policy would encourage or refusing to do something that public policy would discourage and the firing was done with malice. If the employee has such a public policy wrongful discharge claim, he may also seek emotional distress.
However, if an employee believes his boss was grossly unfair and mean to him resulting in his firing or having to quit, it may be difficult for him to prove that he is covered under any state or federal statutory protections or he meets under the public policy exception of the employee-at-will doctrine. For example, if an employee believes that he was fired for being unjustly accused of stealing equipment, he could not say that he was illegally fired as a result of discrimination or that his firing fell under the public policy exception of employee-at-will doctrine since he was not fired for doing something public policy would encourage or refusing to do something public policy would discourage. He believes he was fired as a result of the employer’s unjustified belief that he stole equipment. If he can show that the employer knew he did not steal equipment, but fired him in retaliation for asserting certain statutory protected rights then he would have statutory claims to bring.
The claim that that boss was a jerk, even if true, is not enough for a wrongful discharge claim. Because of this, some employees in such a circumstance seek to assert the non-statutory claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress. To state such a claim, the plaintiff must allege that the defendant, by extreme or outrageous conduct intentionally or recklessly caused the severe emotional distress to another. For example, if someone was to contact another and lie that her spouse died in a car accident and caused her severe emotional distress, that would be sufficiently outrageous conduct to support an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. Nevertheless, as the April 7 decision from the New Hampshire federal trial court of Chad T. Maynard v. Meggitt-USA, Inc. showed, intentional infliction of emotional distress claims are tough to prove in the employment context. While the federal trial court in that case first pointed out that the employee had not alleged emotional distress in his Complaint and that, itself, was a ground to dismiss that claim, the Court went further to state that under the facts alleged in the Complaint, there was not extreme or outrageous conduct. Maynard had alleged that his employer had spread false allegations about him stealing tools, kept him on administrative leave, and refused to communicate with him. The Court found that even if the employer did those acts and was driven by malice, those acts were not sufficiently atrocious to sustain a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Court noted that in the workplace false accusations, inadequate investigations, humiliating treatment, and abuse of authority generally do not amount to outrageous or atrocious conduct sufficient to state a plausible intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. Maynard has other claims that were not dismissed in the case but the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim was dismissed.
For employers, while this decision helps clarify the limits of legal claims an employee may make in alleging he was unfairly fired, continuing to treat employees with fairness and dignity throughout the employment process, including termination of employment, it is extremely appropriate. This is so not only because it is the right thing to do, but it also helps maintain the remaining employee’s morale and therefore productivity while lessening the likelihood of having to spend time and money defending an employment law suit from a fired employee.
J. Daniel Marr is a Director and Shareholder at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. His legal practice includes counseling businesses and individuals on a variety of legal issues and advocating on their behalf. Attorney Marr is licensed and practices in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Attorney Marr can be reached at [email protected].