A recent decision by a California jury has highlighted an important resource for the defense bar in employment litigation cases – the testimony of mental health experts.
On October 28, 2016, after a five-day trial in Los Angeles, a jury rejected former SpaceX employee Zhoei Teasley’s allegations that the company ignored her coworker’s sexual harassment, paid her less than her male colleagues, discriminated against her for the psychological disability she suffered as a result of the harassment, and retaliated against her for raising complaints about the issues. From the perspective of the defense bar, the case offers valuable insight in countering an employment plaintiff’s allegations through the use of expert testimony concerning the plaintiff’s mental health.
Teasley filed suit in January 2015, claiming that she was hired at age 20 to work at SpaceX's Los Angeles-area welding shop and was the only woman of the approximately 20 people working in that department. In her complaint, she alleged she was unfairly paid less than her male colleagues. She also alleged that after being hired, her supervisor engaged in a campaign of graphic sexual harassment against her by calling her lewd names, showing her pornography on his cellphone, and by grabbing her body. After filing a complaint about her supervisor with the company, Teasley alleged that she was subjected to additional harassment from her coworkers. Teasley claimed she was later fired from SpaceX after the company refused to let her take time off after a work-related injury.
During trial and closing arguments, SpaceX’s attorney told the jury that they had seen two “contradictory” accounts of Teasley’s employment at SpaceX and asked that they look at the “actual evidence, not just plaintiff’s flawed and fabricated account.” Interestingly, one of the company’s central theories throughout trial was that Teasley suffered from borderline personality disorder and had a record of seeing the world as either “all good” or “all evil” and telling “false histories” to maintain that perception. In support of this theory, the company called expert Mark Lipian, a medical doctor and board-certified psychiatrist, who testified that Teasley fit all the symptoms of borderline personality disorder, including going from calling certain SpaceX coworkers close friends to shortly thereafter accusing them of harassment and assault. Lipian also testified that Teasley changed her own story about the harassment to fit the needs of her lawsuit, as he would expect from a person suffering from the disorder.
Teasley’s attorney told the jury during closing arguments that his client’s direct supervisor should have known there was problem after Teasley brought him complaints about her coworkers and her workplace, especially since he knew Teasley was good worker and the only woman working in her group. Teasley argued that not only was SpaceX liable for the alleged months-long sexual harassment, but that also that there was clear evidence that the high-level decision makers at the company consciously chose not to accommodate Teasley’s return when she took a medical leave from SpaceX after finally complaining about the harassment.
While Teasley’s attorney asked jury to award her over $8 million in compensatory damages during his opening statement, he did not give the jury a specific number of damages to award during his closing argument. Instead, he asked the jury to return a verdict that would make Teasley “whole.” However, the jury voted 9-3 in favor of SpaceX on the sexual harassment claim and voted 12-0 in favor of the company on all remaining claims, awarding Teasley nothing and clearing SpaceX of any liability.
The case reveals a broader trend of courts allowing mental health experts to play an expanded role in employment discrimination and harassment lawsuits. Traditionally, the role of a mental health expert in a civil lawsuit has been to determine whether the plaintiff suffered emotional distress, and if so, what caused the distress. However, as shown here, courts have become increasingly willing to consider whether the plaintiff's own prior psychopathology contributed to the origin of the workplace dispute being litigated.