NJ Court: Employer that restricts an employee from grieving in the workplace is not actionable conduct that entitles one to damages
New Jersey mother Cecelia Ingraham, who openly grieved the death of her beloved daughter in the workplace, has lost her appeal against former employer Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical, in Raritan, New Jersey, where she had previously worked as an administrative assistant in the marketing department for over 12 years. Ms. Ingraham brought suit against her employer after she was told to remove her deceased daughter’s ballet slippers and picture from her cubicle and to pretend that her daughter “did not exist.” Ingraham’s teenage daughter died of incurable infection related to lymphocytic leukemia. Ingraham’s open and repeated grieving in the workplace made co-workers uncomfortable. The employer claimed that Ingraham’s pictures and grieving behavior constituted a workplace “disruption” and that the daughter should no longer be discussed “because she is dead.”
Ingraham brought suit against her former employer under the legal theories of intentional infliction of emotional distress, constructive discharge and violations of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. In order to prevail in a lawsuit for intentional infliction of emotional distress, the plaintiff typically must show the following: (1) the defendant intended to inflict emotional distress; (2) the conduct of the defendant was extreme and outrageous; (3) the actions of the defendant were the cause of the plaintiff’s distress; and (4) the resulting emotional distress to the plaintiff was severe. The Superior Court of New Jersey rejected Ingraham’s claims by finding that although the employer’s words may have inflicted emotional distress upon Ingraham, Ingraham failed to show that defendants intended to cause her distress and acted extremely, and outrageously in their actions of preventing Ingraham from grieving in the workplace. Justice Victor Ashrafi reasoned that “the workplace has too many personal conflicts and too much behavior that might be perceived as uncivil for the courts to be used as the umpire for all but the most extreme workplace disputes.” If you or a loved one is dealing with emotional distress in the workplace, please feel free to contact the employment attorneys of Bashian & Papantoniou, P.C.