When can you sue for harassment & emotional distress?

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If a co-worker or supervisor constantly harasses you, or you have suffered emotional distress as a result of negligent behaviour, you have probably considered going to court and suing the perpetrator. Not all lawsuits stand a chance of going before a judge, though. Potential plaintiffs must have a strong case.

"A strong case" refers to evidence that the plaintiff can prove in court. Check with a lawyer to determine whether bringing a lawsuit will be worth your while.


Harassment and emotional distress lawsuits are civil matters, not criminal cases. In civil litigation, the plaintiff must prove he has suffered from the defendant's harassment or negligence. An attorney will not take a case unless the evidence will stand up in court. If you can present convincing proof that the defendant harassed you or was negligent to the point of causing you emotional distress, then you can pursue a lawsuit against the other individual.

Hostile Work Environment

Employees and supervisors who harass other employees create a hostile work environment. According to the definition from the U.S. Department of the Interior, a hostile work environment features severe levels of pervasive conduct, which completely permeates the surroundings and adversely affects an employee's ability to perform his duties. The Hostile Work Environment website adds that "a hostile work environment ensues when there is discriminatory conduct or behaviour in the place of work that is unwelcome and offensive to an employee or group of employees based on a protected class status (women, disabled or a specific race)." To prove the existence of a hostile work environment, the plaintiff needs to provide documentation of the harassment taking place.

Negligence or Intentional Behavior

To sue someone for causing emotional distress, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant acted negligently or intentionally caused the plaintiff harm. "Negligence" means carelessness. At the workplace, negligence might take the form of a wet floor with no warning sign to passersby which would alert them to the risk of slippery floors. Intentional behaviour, conversely, does not denote carelessness. An example of intentional behaviour would be your co-worker repeatedly snooping in your cubicle after you have told him several times to stop.

Causing Emotional Distress

To have an actionable case against a defendant for emotional distress, the plaintiff must show that he suffered adverse emotional effects due to the defendant's actions. In some states, such as Missouri, the plaintiff must present a medical diagnosis that the event caused the emotional distress in question. In other states, personal testimony of emotional distress will suffice. Causation plays an important role in emotional distress: the source of the mental anguish must be directly linked to the plaintiff's suffering. If the plaintiff can not prove causation, the judge will throw out the case.