Hostile Work Environment or Outrage?

Do you believe that you are the victim of a Hostile Work Environment? Maybe the correct legal term is Outrage.

by Chalmers Johnson, employment attorney

The Seattle Times recently reported on a state case involving a claim of “outrage”. A man did not like the fact that his neighbor was giving piano lessons in her home. He filed a complaint to stop her and then sued.  He lost, and paid $30,000 for court costs and her legal fees. In response, he parked his big truck outside of her house. He then repeatedly remote-started it, revved the engine and sounded the alarm. This tended to scare off students and interfere with her lessons. The music teacher sued and won.

The Appellate Court upheld a $40k verdict for the teacher. The Court  determined that the man’s behavior was “outrageous.” The Judge said “He intended to achieve through harassment what he had been unable to achieve through legal means.” Check out the details.

This kind of lawsuit is also sometimes called “Intentional infliction of emotional distress.” As an employment attorney, I meet with a lot of potential clients who talk about horrible bosses or co-workers. Typically they ask me about a “hostile work environment” claim. First, I have to explain that the term “hostile work environment” is not actually a legal claim that you can make, not all by itself. It’s part of a set of civil rights claims, like sexual or racial harassment. To prove one of those claims, you have to prove that there was unwanted harassment of a sexual nature and that it was so severe or pervasive that it rose to the level of a “hostile work environment.” So proving a hostile work environment is PART of a discrimination claim, but is not a claim on its own.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress or Outrage

There is a legal claim that does deal with outrageous behavior, in general, however. It’s actually called “Outrage” or Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress. It gives you the right to sue someone who intentionally tries to harm you, emotionally and has done something that is so completely outrageous that, frankly,  nobody thought to make it illegal. Interestingly, the outrageous act can be something that was completely legal to do.  It just has to be aimed at harming you and so outrageous that it would be considered unacceptable behavior in a civilized community. The neighbor with the remote-starting truck is a good example.

Unfortunately, because of the very “outrageous” nature of this kind of claim, each case is pretty much unique. When I pursue a case like this, and it goes to trial, I line up all the stories I can find with where the behavior was on the less outrageous side. I compare them for the Judge with my client’s facts.  I argue that the things the Courts ruled outrageous in the past are much less outrageous than my case. The Defense then picks out the cases where a Court found that really off-the-wall behavior was not outrageous. The defense then argues that my case involves much less outrageous behavior than the presented cases. It’s a tough sell to get one of these cases to trial.  The standard is very high.

A fun legal test for legal Outrage

A mean boss may heap work on you, belittle you, bully you and be an all-around jerk every day. Unless the actions are based on sex, race, or other protected categories, a claim for discrimination or a “hostile work environment” doesn’t apply. Unfortunately, this kind of behavior, in general, is probably not “outrageous” either. Sadly, having an awful co-worker or supervisor is kind of a common-place occurrence. Therefore, it is unlikely to reach the high bar of outrageous. That is not to say there can never be a case of outrage in an employment setting, though. Here’s the test for whether conduct reaches this high bar they taught us in law school. If  you tell an average citizen in your community about it, would it cause him to stand up and exclaim, “OUTRAGEOUS!”

It’s a fun legal test because, as you can imagine, it’s pretty subjective. So the last word on Outrage is that it’s really reserved for the extreme. Thus, each case ends up being unique.