Usually when I get an employment lawsuit alleging "negligent infliction of emotional distress," I chuckle to myself and immediately begin drafting a motion to dismiss. However, a recent case out of the Washington Court of Appeals may indicate that NIED claims are not totally frivolous!
In Strong v. Wright, the plaintiff sued her former supervisor because he told "blonde jokes" (apparently plaintiff was blonde), made fun of her house, ridiculed her husband’s job, and referred to her as a "bum mother" because she put her son in therapy. The plaintiff alleged that this treatment "caused her to vomit and to have anxiety attacks, depression, and heart palpitations." Really. Blonde jokes=heart palpitations.
The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, reasoning that the claims were nothing more than a run-of-the-mill workplace dispute. The Washington Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the events went beyond a mere workplace dispute. One of the facts that helped the court reach this decision: the defendant stood so close to plaintiff while telling the blonde jokes that his spit would fly and hit her face, constituting an "assault" under Washington law.
What’s the lesson here for employers? Even though none of the supervisor’s conduct violated federal or Washington discrimination or harassment law (although the blonde jokes could be construed as race or national origin discrimination under Title VII), employers still need to watch out for boorish and demeaning workplace behavior. Courts appear willing to find a way–or even create a way–to continue policing the workforce. Lastly, whatever you do, DO NOT let your employees visit this website full of blonde jokes.