Mental and emotional injuries in employment litigation are damages usually sought by plaintiffs. These damages are generally subsumed under the category of “emotional distress” by which is included mental suffering, mental anguish, or mental or nervous shock as well as “all highly unpleasant mental reactions such as fright, horror, grief, shame, humiliation, embarrassment, anger, chagrin, disappointment, worry, and nausea.” Also included under emotional distress would be modification of dignity and physical pain. Generally speaking, emotional distress damagesoccur because the affected individual has suffered a loss of enjoyment of life, although in some jurisdictions the “loss of enjoyment of life” may be an additional damage.

There is a statutory basis for emotional distress damages, which began with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and which was continued in the Civil Rights Act of 1991, also the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act as well as State Employment Anti-Discrimination Statutes provide for damages.

Insofar as the nature of the employment relationship between employee and employer give the employer unusual influence over the employee’s conduct and, in a manner of speaking, limits the employee’s actions since usually an equal relationship does not exist, it is often easier for the employee to be able to demonstrate one of the four essential features for intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), to wit, “extreme and outrageous conduct.”

Once this element of intentional infliction of emotional distress has been proven, then the other elements of IIED, an intent to cause, or reckless disregard of the probability of causing, emotional distress, severe emotional distress having been suffered by the employee, and a causal connection existing between the conduct complained of and the employee’s emotional distress more easily flow.

Negligent infliction of emotional distress may or may not entitle the affected employee for damages, particularly if a physical injury was not concomitantly suffered. Another limitation on the liability of the employer has to do with the notion of “severe emotional distress,” which is a situation where the distress inflicted is so severe that a reasonable person would not be expected to endure it. If, however, the distress arises out of a particular susceptibility of the employee to emotional distress, of which the employer is aware, then a compensable injury may occur.

Other particular actions by an employer, including the employer’s representative, may include assault and battery, false imprisonment where an employee is physically restrained from leaving a particular area, invasion of privacy, defamation, wrongful discharge, misrepresentation by the employer which causes the employee to act or not act based upon the misrepresentation and which causes a loss of money, and under only very special circumstances, negligence.

A psychiatric expert witness is not permitted by law to give a value of the emotional distress he believes has occurred.

In order to prove emotional distress, the plaintiff usually submits to a psychiatric evaluation in order to demonstrate a mental disorder. There currently exists a diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, which defines and describes a spectrum of conditions, which have as a common denominator a maladaptive or disturbed internal mental process. Depending on the group of symptoms, a diagnosis is made. A number of common conditions, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, are described in other parts of this website. It is important to remember that the mere of presence of symptoms do not necessarily define a mental disorder since symptoms may be mild or infrequent or not be causing significant emotional distress.

Preexisting psychiatric syndromes, which are maladaptive at the workplace, may further influence the assessment of emotional distress arising from the actions of an employer. Personality disorders, developmental disorders, or preexisting significant other psychiatric disorders (such as chronic depression or schizophrenia) may already be causing the individual emotional distress or be causing maladaptivebehavior in the workplace and in other aspects of the person’s life. It is necessary for the evaluator to assess the presence of these conditions and to rule them out before attributing current problems to alleged employer wrongdoings. Also to be considered is the existence of malingering, which in its simplest definition is “lying for money.” The detection of malingering is subject in its own right but it must be mentioned within the context of employment law and particularly damages.

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