Mental Distress – A Case Analysis

Where an employer terminates an employee without cause and fails to provide reasonable notice, the employee can sue for wrongful dismissal to obtain damages equal to the notice that ought to have been provided by the employer. Where the circumstances surrounding the termination have caused the employee mental or emotional suffering, he or she will not be able to sue for “aggravated damages” on account of mental distress unless the employee can establish that the employer committed a legal wrong separate and apart from its failure to provide reasonable notice.

One such “wrong” is the tort of intentional infliction of mental distress. In order to succeed on such a claim, the employee must show that:
(i) The employer engaged in conduct which was flagrant and outrageous;
(ii) The employer engaged in such conduct seeking to cause the employee harm
or with reckless disregard as to whether such harm would occur; and
(iii) The employer’s conduct resulted in a visable and provable injury.

In Rahemtulla v. Vanfed Credit Union, the plaintiff was dismissed from her position as a bank teller on the basis of unfounded accusations of theft. She suffered severe emotional distress as a consequence of her summary dismissal and the accusations of the defendant. The Court held that the accusations of theft, even if motivated by a desire to extort a confession and solve the mystery of the missing funds, amounted to an act with reckless disregard as to whether or not shock would ensue from the accusation. The Court further found that in order to establish the tort, the plaintiff did not have to show that the defendant’s conduct was caused by malicious intent to cause harm or any motive of spite. The Court further found that the employer’s conduct was outrageous and observed:
“While the financial institution has the right to dismiss a suspect employee without investigation, the proper conduct of its affairs does not require that it be given the right to make reckless and very possibly untruthful accusations as to the employee’s honesty which will foreseeably inflict shock and mental suffering. Considering all of these circumstances, I am satisfied that Mr. Flack’s conduct can fairly be described as flagrant and outrageous.”

The Court awarded the Plaintiff $5,000.00 for mental distress.

An employer by communicating an employee’s termination in a reckless fashion, may cause the employee mental distress. Such communications may also constitute the tort of intentional infliction of mental suffering. In Bohemier v. Storwal International Inc., the employee had been employed for 35 years when his discharge was delivered on a Friday evening by taxi. The letter expressed no gratitude for service, offered no proposal to aid in obtaining new employment, and did not specify the basis for payment in lieu of notice. The Court, in awarding damages for mental distress, held:
“The evidence discloses that the usual practice of Storwal on dismissals was to call the employee into the office of a superior at the end of the last day of work. There is no explanation of why this was not done in the case of the plaintiff. Hughes believes that it was due to inadvertence and that the plaintiff left the plant before his superior had an opportunity to speak with him. The reason for departing from the usual practice does not matter. Someone in authority at Storwal must have arranged that the notice be delivered by taxi cab. In my opinion, it was reasonably foreseeable that such an action would aggravate the mental suffering of the plaintiff that would inevitably caused by the act of dismissal and the inadequate period of notice.”

The decision of the Trial Court was upheld by the Court of Appeal.

This article is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Any individual questions or legal issues should be discussed with independent counsel.