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February 26, 2024 | EmploymentLitigationNew York

Can You Sue an Employer for Emotional Distress in New York?

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In the hustle and bustle of the workplace, it is not uncommon for employees to face challenges that go beyond the everyday stresses of the job.  In some instances, the emotional toll can become so significant that individuals may wonder if they have legal recourse against their employers.  An understanding of the relevant law is crucial for any employee that is suffering from emotional distress and would like to explore their legal options. 

What is Emotional Distress? 

Emotional distress can be broadly described as a state of mental suffering that arises in response to traumatic or otherwise distressing experiences.  Emotional distress can include one or more of the following  symptoms:

  • Feeling overwhelmed or hopeless
  • Persistent worrying
  • Fatigue or trouble keeping up with responsibilities
  • Changes in appetite or sleep patterns
  • Unexplained physical pain 

Like the symptoms, the causes of emotional distress can also vary widely, and include, for example:

  • Traumatic exposure to natural disasters, major accidents, or violence
  • Long-term medical issues
  • Major changes in family structure or relationships

Circumstances and experiences in the workplace can similarly cause employees to experience symptoms of emotional distress.  In the workplace, emotional distress can be caused by discrimination, harassment, tension with co-workers, or an excessive workload.

Can You Sue Your Employer for Stress Or Anxiety Under New York Law?

Like many states, New York has “workers’ compensation” to cover employees who suffer from work-related ailments.  In most cases, New York’s Workers’ Compensation statute provides the exclusive remedy for ailments, including stress and anxiety, that occur on or from the job.  That means that employees may often not be able to sue their employer for stress and anxiety because they are limited to recovering workers’ compensation benefits.

However, there are some exceptions under which employees may sue their employers for workplace stress and anxiety.  Employees can sue if their employer fails to provide required workers’ compensation coverage.  Employees can also sue employers for workplace distress resulting from intentional wrongful acts committed by their employers.  For example, an employee could sue their employer for the intentional wrong or “tort” of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Intentional infliction of emotional distress requires that the employee is suffering from severe distress, which the employer intentionally or recklessly caused by extreme and outrageous conduct.  It is important to note that, under these requirements, New York courts have set a high standard for establishing a claim under this tort, and successful claims are relatively rare.  The employer’s conduct must be so extreme that it goes far beyond what is typically encountered in the workplace.  Additional hurdles arise where the distress was caused by another co-worker or supervisor, rather than by the employer itself.  Nonetheless, this tort has been recognized in the context of employer-employee relationships in some cases where there are extreme instances of harassing, intimidating, or discriminatory behavior.

If an employee’s stress and anxiety stems from experiencing sexual harassment or other forms of prohibited discrimination in the workplace, that employee may seek to recover damages for emotional distress.  The New York State Division of Human Rights and the New York City Commission’s Law Enforcement Bureau enforce state and local anti-discrimination laws.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal anti-discrimination and harassment laws.  An employee experiencing stress and anxiety from workplace harassment or discrimination could file a complaint with one or more of these agencies, and potentially recover different categories of damages, including for emotional distress. 

How Do You Prove Emotional Distress?

In New York, proving emotional distress typically follows the principles applied in personal injury or employment law cases.  It requires proof through documents or testimony that one’s distress was caused, at least in part, by workplace issues.   This can be more challenging than it sounds. 

Medical evidence (often called “medical corroboration”) is crucial to proving cases of severe emotional distress.  This medical evidence often includes documentation of diagnoses and prescribed treatments, records of any therapy sessions or other appointments, or expert testimony from medical professionals.  A documented timeline of the triggering workplace events and resulting distress symptoms, as well as corroborating testimony from any witnesses, is also helpful in establishing causation.

Contact Our Experienced New York Employment Attorneys 

Suffering from emotional stress can lead to long-term mental and physical health issues.  It is essential to consult with an experienced employment attorney in New York to learn about your options in these difficult situations.  

Contributions to this blog by Ryan White


Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash
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