Mental distress from work is not always compensable

Date: 2008
Author: Daniel A. Lublin
Publication: Metro

Mental suffering at work may be real – but that doesn’t necessarily amount to a successful lawsuit.

Having just been denied a promotion at work, Maria Amaral was crestfallen.  As an employee of the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency for 23 years, Amaral thought that she should have been promoted to manager.  But her boss, Caroline Rioux, thought otherwise.  Shortly after the failed promotion attempt, Amaral refused to write a letter when Rioux directed her to.  She was disciplined.  Dejected, she let her attendance and performance dwindle.  Rioux continued to warn Amaral, and eventually the agency relieved her of some of her duties.  But Amaral’s absenteeism and performance worsened.  The agency placed Amaral on probation and planned for her eventual dismissal.
Two days later, Amaral suffered a serious mental breakdown, believing the agency wanted her to leave, and never returned to work.  Her next contact with the agency was through her lawyer, suing the agency, its president, vice-president and her boss, Rioux, for the considerable damages flowing from her breakdown, claiming that they deliberately or negligently inflicted mental suffering on her.
Finding that the agency and its employees were not responsible for Amaral’s breakdown, Justice Ruth Mesbur concluded that no one could have foreseen Amaral’s reaction.  More importantly, however, the court confirmed that the threshold to find employers liable for psychiatric damage suffered by employees is significant: the employer’s conduct must be extreme, flagrant or outrageous and calculated to deliberately impose harm.
Following recent high-profile Canadian judgments for harassment and mental suffering, employees’ lawyers have been adding zeros to their precedents, claiming perceived mistreatment equates to a significant lawsuit.  But workplace law doesn’t provide compensation for any stress suffered by employees at the hands of their employer – the conduct complained of must be objectively intolerable in the eyes of the judge, not just the plaintiff.
Employees should follow the lessons from this case very closely or risk being the author of their own misfortune:

  • Management may be demanding, unsympathetic or even insensitive, but that alone does not afford employees the right to launch a considerable lawsuit or render the company liable for inflicting mental distress.  Even had Amaral’s allegations been proven, they were not sufficiently offensive to merit the damage award she sought.
  • There is not a legal remedy for every case of workplace distress.  The unfortunate counsel I sometimes provide is to seek another job rather than remain profoundly unhappy with the current conditions.
  • Consider a negotiated resolution to a claim instead of steadfastly marching to the courtroom doors.  Had Amaral heeded this advice, she would have been cashing settlement cheques now rather than having to pay almost $330,000 in legal costs to her former employer.