Heyl Royster

 


Heyl Royster

 

District Court Allows Count for Infliction of Emotional Distress to Stand Against Employer

9/25/18

On July 18, 2018, Judge Alonzo of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois held that a female employee of Exxon Mobile could pursue her common law claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress against Exxon Mobile relating to acts that also may violate the Illinois Human Rights Act (HRA) as well as the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA). Phillips v. Exxon Mobile Corp., No. 17 C 7703. Phillips alleged in her complaint a long history of harassment and offensive behavior by Exxon employees and that Exxon took no steps to stop the behavior.

Although just at the pleading stage, this case serves as a warning to all employers that failure to act on an employee’s complaints of harassment or other offensive behavior could lead to an employee’s tort claim for intention infliction of emotional distress.

Amy Phillips alleged in her complaint for intentional infliction of emotional distress that co-workers and supervisors at Exxon Mobile directed sexist and homophobic slurs at her and subjected her to threats and physical abuse. Exxon Mobile moved to dismiss Phillips’ complaint on the basis that the HRA and WCA preempt her common law actions because the HRA governs sexual harassment claims and the WCA governs workplace injury claims.

Judge Alonzo rejected both of Exxon’s arguments. As to the HRA, Judge Alonzo held that Phillips’ claim was not preempted because, while under the HRA, the Human Rights Commission has exclusive jurisdiction over alleged civil rights violations, HRA preemption would only apply if the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim was “inextricably linked with her sexual harassment claim.” Judge Alonzo stated, however, that just because the facts alleged by Phillips support both a sexual harassment claim and an intentional infliction of emotional distress tort claim, the overlap does not mean that there is not an independent basis for both claims.

As to the claim of preemption by the WCA, Judge Alonzo opined that, while the WCA provides the exclusive remedy for accidental injuries, including claims of intentional injuries inflicted by a co-worker, it does not preempt certain claims alleging that the employer itself intentionally inflicted the injury on the employee. Judge Alonzo based his conclusion on the fact that a co-worker’s intentional conduct is accidental since such injuries are unexpected and unforeseeable from both the injured employee’s and the employer’s point of view. However, intentional torts are not accidental from the employer’s perspective if the employer either directly authorized the behavior or an employer’s “alter ego” engaged in the behavior.

Judge Alonzo made it clear that, depending upon the facts presented as the case proceeds, Phillips may find her claim preempted by the WCA.

It should also be noted that the judge dismissed Phillips’ claims of negligent infliction of emotional distress and negligent retention and supervision claims, finding that they were both preempted by the WCA.

This opinion did not reach the merits of Phillips’ case but, rather, only addressed whether or not the plaintiff had alleged sufficient facts in her complaint to support a common law claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, independent of the Illinois Human Rights Act or the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act.

Please feel free to contact the attorneys in Heyl Royster’s Employment & Labor Practice for more information, or if you are interested an in-house anti-harassment training program for your supervisors.