The plaintiff worked for the defendant Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical from 1994 to 2006. Ingraham v. Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2011). In 2006, she was an administrative assistant in a marketing department. The plaintiff’s immediate supervisors reported to defendant Carl DeStefanis, the department’s director, but the plaintiff had only infrequent contact with him.
In 2003, the plaintiff’s only child, Tatiana, was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia while she was in her third year of high school. Tatiana was a talented, excellent student who belonged to several honor societies and had been accepted at Cornell University. In addition, she studied at the New Jersey School of Ballet but had to stop dancing because of her illness. Tatiana died in May 2005. As the Appellate Division noted, the “[p]laintiff’s mourning was deep and enduring[,]” and she kept pictures of Tatiana and her ballet slippers at her work cubicle.
About eighteen months after Tatiana died, one of defendant’s human resources managers met with DeStefanis to share with him complaints that had been received about plaintiff’s conduct and interaction with co-workers. Some of the complaints did not involve Tatiana, but some did, as plaintiff’s colleagues noted that the plaintiff often spoke with them about her daughter’s death. Although her colleagues sympathized with the plaintiff, they felt uncomfortable in these discussions; as a result, they tried to avoid the plaintiff.
DeStefanis met with the plaintiff in a conference room at 4:00 p.m. on Friday, November 17, 2006, to discuss these issues. DeStefanis informed the plaintiff that there had been several complaints about her discussions of her daughter and that she displayed pictures of Tatiana in her cubicle. He also told her that the pictures had to be removed. The plaintiff became upset upon hearing this, and during the course of the discussion DeStefanis reiterated that the pictures, along with Tatiana’s ballet slippers, had to be removed from the plaintiff’s cubicle. Although the plaintiff protested, DeStefanis explained that the pictures were a disruption and that people were avoiding her. According to the plaintiff, DeStefanis also told her that she could “‘no longer speak of [her] daughter because she is dead.’” When the plaintiff asked DeStefanis if she was supposed to act as if Tatiana did not exist, DeStefanis responded affirmatively.
During the rest of their conversation, DeStefanis declined to give the plaintiff the names of her colleagues who complained about her. DeStefanis also advised the plaintiff that if she felt a need to talk about Tatiana, she could go to his office and speak with him about her behind closed doors. They also discussed the non-Tatiana related issues, and the plaintiff gave her version of those incidents. The plaintiff did not think that DeStefanis was angry during the meeting but was “cold.” She did not feel angry but instead distraught, hurt, upset, and outraged. She left work that day crying and never returned, eventually resigning.
In April 2008 the plaintiff filed a three-count complaint that included claims for alleged violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”); intentional infliction of emotional distress; and constructive discharge. After discovery the defendants moved for summary judgment, at which time the plaintiff stipulated to the dismissal of her LAD and constructive discharge claims. The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendants on the plaintiff’s intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, and the Appellate Division affirmed.
The Appellate Division began its analysis by explaining that to establish an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, the plaintiff must prove: 1) the defendant acted intentionally or recklessly with the intent to produce emotional distress; 2) the defendant’s conduct was extreme and outrageous -- that is, it is so outrageous and extreme that it goes beyond all bounds of decency and is intolerable in a civilized community; 3) the defendant’s conduct proximately caused his or her harm; and 4) the emotional injury is so severe that no reasonable person could be expected to endure it. The Appellate Division agreed with the defendants’ argument that the plaintiff could not satisfy the first and second elements.
The court explained that the second element, concerning the outrageousness of defendants’ conduct, had an “‘elevated threshold’ that is satisfied only in extreme cases.” Next, the court listed, with a description of the conduct at issue, cases in which that elevated threshold had been met, as well as cases in which it had not. With respect to the plaintiff’s argument that the “power dynamics of the workplace” lessened her burden, the court explained that the employment relationship is one factor to be considered but does not serve to reduce the plaintiff’s burden of proof. In that regard, the Appellate Division reasoned that “the workplace has too many personal conflicts and too much behavior that might be perceived as uncivil for the courts to be used as the umpire for all but the most extreme workplace disputes.”
The court proceeded to extensively review the plaintiff’s deposition testimony and concluded that “although plaintiff’s version of the meeting would allow the jury to view DeStefanis as insensitive and perhaps negligent of plaintiff’s vulnerability in her continuing bereavement, the conduct described does not meet the requisite standard to support a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress. The trial court correctly determined that plaintiff could not prove the second essential element of her cause of action.” Similarly, the Appellate Division ruled that the plaintiff could not satisfy the first element because DeStefanis did not intend to cause emotional distress to plaintiff; rather, his purpose in meeting with her was to resolve a workplace issue involving efficiency and the plaintiff’s relationships with her colleagues.
In conclusion, the Appellate Division declared that “the evidence, while troubling and naturally invoking sympathy for plaintiff, is not sufficient to support a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress.”