When Can You Sue for Harassment & Emotional Distress?

By Anna Green - Updated June 16, 2017
Place of work

When you fear for your own safety or well-being or that of another person close to you, such as your child, you might be able to file a lawsuit for harassment and emotional distress. If you are the target of workplace harassment that causes emotional distress, you might have grounds for a lawsuit against the employer who didn't stop the harassment. In civil cases for harassment that occurs outside the workplace, you must meet a four-prong legal test to sue for harassment and emotional distress. Harassment at work, threats by a romantic partner and stalking by an acquaintance may all rise to the level of legal action, provided you meet the legal requirements to file suit. Because federal and state laws vary and civil and employment-related lawsuits for harassment can be complex, it is in your best interest to contact an attorney first.

Reckless or Intentional Behavior

To prove emotional distress in court, you must be able to prove that the person harassing you behaved recklessly or intentionally harassed you. For instance, if the perpetrator wrote you letters threatening to kill you, this shows a degree of planning and intentional behavior. Likewise, if he repeatedly made prank phone calls, telling you that one of your family members died, this could show recklessness that may hold up in a civil lawsuit for emotional distress, even though he may not have planned to cause you significant emotional harm.

Outrageous and Extreme Conduct

To meet the threshold for emotional distress over harassment, you typically must show that the individual’s conduct was outrageous or extreme. There is no single definition of this extreme behavior. For the purposes of a lawsuit, however, extreme or outrageous behavior goes beyond impolite or annoying behavior, such as cursing at someone or insulting her job performance. Instead, outrageous conduct must goes well beyond standard social norms. For example, repeatedly calling a friend’s spouse to humiliate him, or making public, degrading comments to a coworker to try to upset her enough to make her quit her job, would likely rise to the level of outrageous and extreme conduct.

Cause of Emotional Distress

To sue based on emotional distress, you must be able to prove that the harassment was the actual cause of your emotional distress. For instance, if you were already in severe emotional distress after being mugged and then suffered harassment but cannot determine whether the harassment or mugging caused your symptoms, it may be difficult to sue. However, if you had good mental health prior to the harassment and can show that your symptoms started after the incidents – typically by producing psychological and medical records – you may be able to sue for emotional distress.

Severity of Harm

When suing for emotional distress based on harassment, you must be able to show that the emotional distress was extreme. Anxiety, worry or feelings of upset rarely meet this threshold unless they are debilitating and require psychiatric care. Passing distress, such as upset that resolves on its own within a week, would not likely meet the legal threshold for emotional distress. Although the harm caused should be so severe that it would even strongly affect a person who is in a healthy mental state, you may still be able to sue if you have existing mental health diagnoses, such as depression or panic attacks.

Lawsuits for Workplace Harassment

Harassment in the workplace requires an extra step before you can file a lawsuit against your employer and the person whom you believe has harassed you to the point where you are emotionally distraught or fear losing your job. According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, workplace harassment is one type of employment discrimination. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) investigates Title VII violations. Filing a charge of discrimination with EEOC starts the process to determine whether you actually experienced harassment. If EEOC finds that your employer or an employee has violated the law, you might be asked if you are interested in pursuing mediation to resolve the differences with your employer. If you choose not to sit across the mediation table from your harasser, the EEOC will give you a Right to Sue letter that you can take to your attorney to begin the litigation process.

About the Author

Anna Green has been published in the "Journal of Counselor Education and Supervision" and has been featured regularly in "Counseling News and Notes," Keys Weekly newspapers, "Travel Host Magazine" and "Travel South." After earning degrees in political science and English, she attended law school, then earned her master's of science in mental health counseling. She is the founder of a nonprofit mental health group and personal coaching service.

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