Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Bill Clinton and the "Extreme and Outrageous" IIED Hurdle

Generally, employees can't bring lawsuits on the theory that their boss is a jerk. When people who have been mistreated find out there's a tort called "Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress" (IIED), however, they often think they have a pretty good claim. After all, their boss did something intentionally... that inflicted... emotional distress. But there's one giant hurdle that can't be discerned just by looking at the name of the tort: The offending conduct must be "extreme and outrageous."

Doesn't sound so bad. After all, isn't intentionally inflicting emotional distress on someone always outrageous? Well, the law may use these words to mean something a little different from its common usage. Perhaps a better description would be REALLY extreme and outrageous (yes, obnoxiously bolded, capped, underlined, and italicized).

Dan Schwartz (CTEmploymentLawBlog) has a story of a workplace IIED claim that failed because it wasn't extreme and outrageous enough: Looking at Employee and Going “Bang Bang” Is Not “Extreme and Outrageous” Conduct. If you're looking for an egregious, and easy to remember, example of just how high a hurdle this is, then here's a great case for you (Warning: adult content to follow).

In the famous case of Paula Jones and Bill Clinton, Ms. Jones alleged:
Plaintiff states that she sat down at the end of the sofa nearest the door, but that the Governor approached the sofa where she had taken a seat and, as he sat down, "lowered his trousers and underwear, exposed his penis (which was erect) and told [her] to 'kiss it.' " She states that she was "horrified" by this and that she "jumped up from the couch" and told the Governor that she had to go, saying something to the effect that she had to get back to the registration desk. Plaintiff states that the Governor, "while fondling his penis," said, "Well, I don't want to make you do anything you don't want to do," and then pulled up his pants and said, "If you get in trouble for leaving work, have Dave call me immediately and I'll take care of it." She states that as she left the room (the door of which was not locked), the Governor "detained" her momentarily, "looked sternly" at her, and said, "You are smart. Let's keep this between ourselves."
Do you see where this is going? The Court held that her claims "fall far short of the rigorous standards for establishing a claim of outrage."

A word of caution: with a vague standard like "extreme and outrageous" results may vary. And definitely do not try this at home (or the workplace). But the fact that one court felt such conduct fell "far short" is an indication of just how difficult it is to establish an IIED claim.

Citation: Jones v. Clinton, 990 F. Supp. 657 (E.D. Ark. 1998) appeal dismissed and remanded, 138 F.3d 758 (8th Cir. 1998).

Posted by Philip Miles, an attorney with McQuaide Blasko in State College, Pennsylvania in the firm's civil litigation and labor and employment law practice groups.