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Can I Sue My Employer for Emotional Distress in California?


We all have bad days at work, but many of us can simply power through knowing that better days are just around the corner. However, there are times when a series of "bad work days" can turn into a serious problem for an employee. Work-related emotional distress brought on by a bad boss or coworker can also be unlawful. No one should be subjected to a hostile work environment that causes mental suffering, but how do you know if you can sue your employer for emotional distress?

This article will help you understand emotional distress, and how your employee rights may be protected under California and federal employment laws.

What is Emotional Distress?

Emotional distress is the result of being subjected to extreme physical or mental harm. A person who is dealing with emotional distress may experience mental suffering in the form of anxiety, panic attacks, depression, feelings of guilt, and even suicidal thoughts.

Types of Emotional Distress

Your employer can cause emotional distress intentionally or by being negligent. There are two types of emotional distress that are recognized by state and federal laws:

1) Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED)

If your boss or a coworker intentionally or recklessly subjects you to extreme or outrageous behaviors, you may be able to file a claim for IIED. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to prove IIED claims because what one person feels is "extreme" or "outrageous" may not convince the court.

One example of IIED is when a coworker or boss threatens to kill or injure you. If the threat causes you to have panic attacks at work on a regular basis, or you suffer from other severe mental or physical health issues because of it, you may be able to prove your claim. A successful IIED claim must be able to prove the following:

  • Your employer/boss/coworker engaged in intentional or reckless behaviors.
  • Your employer/boss/coworker's behavior was outrageous and extreme.
  • Your employer/boss/coworker's behavior caused you mental distress.
  • Your mental distress was severe.

2) Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (NIED)

If your employer failed to use reasonable care to avoid causing your emotional distress, then you may be able to file a claim for NIED. Bystanders who witness negligent incidents can also bring a claim even if they were not harmed themselves.

For example, if you nearly suffered from a severe workplace injury from operating equipment that was not properly maintained by your employer, you could have grounds to sue. Or, if you were near someone else getting harmed in such a way, then you may also be able to file a claim. A successful NIED claim must be able to prove the following:

  • Your employer engaged in negligent conduct, or willfully violated a statutory duty.
  • You (or a coworker) suffered from emotional distress from the incident.
  • Your employer's negligent behavior was a cause of emotional distress.

So, Can I Sue My Employer for Emotional Distress?

Under both federal and California employment laws, employees are protected from negligence and unsafe working conditions. There are many ways that an employee can sue for emotional distress and the law can get complicated. While one person may be able to file a claim with Cal-OSHA due to a workplace injury, another may be able to file a workplace harassment complaint if emotional distress from being threatened was due to their membership of a protected class (e.g. age, race, gender, disability, national origin, sexual orientation, etc.).

File an Emotional Distress Lawsuit Against Your Employer

California emotional distress claims are fact-intensive and can be very difficult to prove on your own - especially if you lack visible harm. This is why it's crucial to speak with a California employment lawyer who can help you gather evidence and file your claim appropriately.

Emotional distress is serious when it disrupts your life and work. If you feel that your employer has caused you to suffer from emotional distress, contact our experienced California employment attorneys at Hennig Ruiz for a free consultation today.

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