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Many jobs can be stressful, whether you are expected to work long hours, do not get along with your boss, or have other issues. It is normal for employees to feel routine stress, but a work environment should never be unhealthy enough to cause serious emotional distress for employees.

Sometimes, an employer will have resources to help reduce emotional distress, such as investigating complaints of abusive conduct of managers or coworkers. However, all too often, the problem goes unchecked, and employees feeling emotional distress should explore their options like suing their employer for emotional distress with an employment attorney.

If you undergo emotional distress because of another individual’s negligent or outrageous deliberate acts, you can file an employment lawsuit to recover damages. This area of the law is complicated. Before suing your employer, it’s essential to comprehend the two types of emotional distress and have a California employment attorney review your best options.

Establishing an Emotional Distress Lawsuit

Emotional distress is either negligent or intentional. The distinction is founded on the company’s state of mind or the individual liable for conducting the destructive act. Each type of emotional distress needs evidence that particular actions did or did not happen.

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress

If you undergo emotional distress caused by someone else’s negligent behavior, you may be able to recover for negligent infliction of emotional distress. Typically, a victorious claim will prove:

  1. The defendant partook in negligent conduct or a purposeful breach of a statutory duty
  2. You suffered severe emotional distress
  3. The defendant’s negligent behavior or deliberate breach of statutory measures caused them emotional distress

A claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress can be brought by the individual harmed by the negligent act and some bystanders who saw the incident but were not physically damaged by it.

At work, you can claim negligent infliction of emotional distress if you were nearly smashed by a piece of defective equipment, for instance. Yet, your lawsuit would likely fail if you only saw a co-worker nearly being smashed, and you were not in the “zone of danger.” If you weren’t immediately in the zone of danger, the negligent infliction of emotional distress must involve a close family member.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

Intentional infliction of emotional distress is centered on extreme or outrageous conduct that is intentionally or recklessly perpetrated. Most courts demand evidence of four factual details for an emotional distress lawsuit to succeed:

  1. The employer or agent acted intentionally or recklessly
  2. The employer or agent’s conduct was extreme and outrageous
  3. The employer or agent’s acts caused the employee mental distress
  4. The emotional distress was severe

There are no precise policies on what extreme and outrageous conduct is, but it can include sexual harassment or other types of workplace discrimination that are particularly harmful. Nevertheless, it must be more than “mere insults, indignities, threats, or annoyances.” It is in your best interest to hire an attorney to resolve whether the conduct you experienced was extreme and outrageous.

Humiliation, shock, and shame qualify as emotional distress. Intentional infliction of emotional distress occurs when the events would cause a reasonable individual to be incapable of dealing with the mental distress.

Suing an Employer for the Behavior of its Employees

An employer can be legally liable for its employee’s actions when the behavior that caused the emotional distress is within the scope of the employee’s job or the employer agreed to the behavior.

Although each state has its laws, evidence of the following facts is usually needed:

  1. The employer had actual knowledge of the specific conduct
  2. The employer knew the conduct was harmful
  3. The employer failed to take adequate steps to remedy the situation.

In workplace claims, emotional distress often goes along with other detrimental behavior, like sexual harassment.

Often, an employee may ask for lost wages when they are discriminated against and fired; however, they may be able to sue for emotional distress as well.

Many laws prevent workplace discrimination. One major example is Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) can also be used in these types of cases.

Emotional distress usually arises, most frequently, in instances where the plaintiff experienced sexual harassment or a hostile working environment.

However, you may also gain some relief in discrimination claims that involve retaliation or the denial of a promotion.

Examples of Intentional Infliction

Intentional infliction of emotional distress may include the following:

  • Sexual abuse or assault
  • Knowingly manufacturing and distributing an extremely hazardous product
  • Retaliating against a whistleblower employee
  • Assault and battery, leading to serious bodily injury
  • DUI, ending in a serious injury or death
  • Extreme use of force

Types of Emotional Distress

Emotional distress may take the form of the following:

  1. Professional reputational harm
  2. Insomnia
  3. A diagnosed psychiatric condition such as an anxiety disorder or depression
  4. Mental anguish or loss of enjoyment in life
  5. A strain in relationships with colleagues and friends
  6. Suicidal thoughts
  7. Constant worrying
  8. Excessive smoking or drinking
  9. Low energy levels

Proving Emotional Distress to the Court

To show that you were subjected to emotional distress, you must prove that an employer’s behavior–rather than another life event–led to your suffering. To support your claim, the following steps are usually taken:

  1. You or your friends and family will testify about how an employer’s actions led to distress; and/or
  2. A medical doctor will support your claim (especially if you’re requesting a higher amount in damages).

As it’s not necessary to have a psychologist or other mental health professional back your claim, you should keep as much evidence on the record as possible. This may be through emails/texts, journals, and similar recordings.

If you do have a medical professional to support your claim, this may be done through the treating psychologist, counselor, or doctor or by hiring an expert witness.

You can also present evidence of a diagnosis of anxiety or depression.

It is helpful, as well, to prove that certain medicines were prescribed to deal with the emotional upset.

Awarding Damages: Deciding on a Settlement Amount

What you are awarded in damages will depend on the following:

  • The severity of the employer’s behavior
  • The duration of the activity
  • The degree of emotional harm
  • Whether or not you seek professional help

To defend themselves in a lawsuit involving emotional distress, an employer may try to show that the plaintiff’s mental anguish was caused by factors that existed outside the workplace.

If this is the case, the other party may ask for information about a plaintiff’s past medical or psychological history or bring up a painful life event such as a family death or a divorce. This evidence is gathered to show the exaggeration of a claim. Sensitive details of this type are usually used in claims requesting a higher settlement.

Seeking Relief for Emotional Distress

The right attorney can help you determine the appropriate relief for your emotional distress. Damages can be difficult to quantify, but our legal team can ensure you seek all the relief you deserve. 

Some damages might cover compensation for:

  • Bills for psychological or psychiatric care for your distress
  • Costs of medication
  • Lost wages if you had to miss work or quit your job because the situation was unbearable
  • Mental pain and suffering you experienced

In some situations, you might even seek reinstatement to a position if your employer fired you for complaining about the hostile work environment. Emotional distress cases often accompany legal action for unlawful harassment, retaliation, and more, so you want a lawyer who can address all relevant legal matters.

Employer Liability

Employer liability for emotional distress can be complicated. If a coworker is creating an unbearable situation, your employer can be liable if the coworker does so within the scope of their employment. The law holds employers liable for the harmful conduct of employees while they are on the job.

An experienced employment attorney can help you prove that your employer knew about the employee’s conduct, knew the conduct was harming you, and failed to take necessary action to stop the conduct or provide other relief for you.

Keep the Following Facts in Mind

Keep the following facts in mind when you’re seeking damages for emotional distress:

  • The maximum amount, under Title VII, for emotional distress damages is $300,000
  • In California, emotional distress is considered the same as punitive damages and therefore is used to punish an employer for their reckless disregard and outrageous behavior
  • You cannot sue for emotional distress in unintentional discrimination cases. Nor can you ask for the reward in mixed-motive cases or in litigation where the employer’s reasons were both discriminatory and legal. For example, if you were fired but would have still been let go if you hadn’t experienced discrimination, you cannot file an emotional distress claim

If you have a legal claim involving discrimination, hostility, sexual harassment, or retaliation, you should also consider whether or not the employer’s behavior has led to emotional issues. Talking to an attorney is the best way to see where you stand and how you can proceed with an action in these matters.

Seek Help from a California Employment Lawyer

So, can I sue my employer for emotional distress? Emotional distress is a claim that is hard to prove, but it’s an honest injury that can negatively impact your life and career. If you have experienced emotional distress and want to sue your employer, seek professional legal guidance from Mara Law Firm. An attorney can help you understand the laws in your state concerning emotional distress in the workplace.

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This page has been written, edited, and reviewed by a team of legal writers following our comprehensive editorial guidelines. This page was approved by attorney David Mara who has more than 20 years of legal experience in employment law.

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