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Tread lightly around claims of mental suffering

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

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 was disciplined for refusing to write a letter when Rioux directed her to. Dejected, she let her attendance and performance dwindle, prompting continual warnings from Rioux, and eventually, the agency relieved her of some of her duties. But Amaral’s absenteeism and performance worsened, for which she was placed on probation and while the agency 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, who was suing the agency, its president, vice-president and 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. Recently, the Ontario Court of Appeal agreed – dismissing Amaral’s appeal.

Following several 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 at the centre of the complaint 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 if 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 considerable legal costs to her former employer.

Daniel A. Lublin is an employment lawyer focusing on the law of dismissal. He can be reached at dan@toronto-employmentlawyer.com

 
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