Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Law and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

In a recent federal case, Cavicchi v. Raytheon Company, the district court had before it several issues arising out of an employment-related injury, which implicated the exclusivity of workers’ compensation benefits.

The case arose out of an incident in which the employee fell on a staircase at work and then went to the doctor. The employee then returned to work the next day. However, instead of being able to work, his employer told him that he was required to undergo a blood test, and he was suspended from work pending an investigation of some sort.

The employer additionally referred the plaintiff to two doctors on two separate occasions, and at each appointment, the plaintiff spoke to the doctors but was not examined physically. The employer then placed the employee on long term disability pay, roughly half of his normal salary. The employee consulted with his union director, who informed him that the employer may have used the purported disability as a pretense in order to suspend the plaintiff, since under his contract, the employer could not terminate the employee without cause.

Therefore, the employee sued his employer for several causes of action, including wrongful termination, disability discrimination, and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), stemming from the purported unlawful placement of him on long term disability, despite the fact that he did not suffer any physical limitations.

The employer moved to dismiss the claims, claiming that the IIED claim was barred by the exclusivity provision of the Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Act, and that his other claims (not relevant to this discussion) were preempted by relevant federal laws (i.e., the Americans with Disabilities Act, etc.).

The plaintiff alleged the IIED stemmed from his employer’s purported “outrageous acts,” which he claimed led to his financial ruin. In order to demonstrate a successful IIED claim, a plaintiff must show that the defendant’s conduct was extreme and outrageous, beyond any possible bounds of decency, or utterly reprehensible, and furthermore  that the resulting emotional distress suffered by the plaintiff was severe.

However, when the purported IIED arises out of the context of the employment relationship, and the incident is compensable by the workers’ compensation statutes, the exclusivity provision of the Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Act bars any common law claims for IIED.

If the employer’s conduct mostly took place when the plaintiff was still an employee, and it was related to his employment, the injuries that resulted from that conduct are deemed to have arisen in the course of the employment relationship and fit within the sorts of injuries meant to be addressed with the Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation statute.

Massachusetts courts have previously held that IIED claims arising out of employment are compensable by workers’ compensation, lending credence to the proposition that since they can and have been covered, allowing for a separate claim for these types of injuries under the common law is improper. Relevant cases within the jurisdiction have found that “[t]he exclusivity bar applies even where the allegedly injurious actions occur in the course of termination.”

Therefore, even though the employee was no longer at work per se, the alleged conduct arose out of his employment relationship, and therefore the IIED claim under common law conflicted with the exclusivity of the workers’ compensation framework, and the court therefore sided with the employer and granted the motion to dismiss.

It is worth a brief discussion of the concepts the court followed in reaching its decision. We have learned in prior blog posts that an injury that occurs at work arises out of the nature of the employment, and it is therefore compensable. We can apply the same but-for logic here. But for the plaintiff being an employee here, he would not have suffered the alleged IIED that his employer purportedly caused. Additionally, the reason that the court found that the IIED was potentially covered by workers’ compensation, and therefore barred under common law, was because it had to do with the very nature of the employment relationship itself.

It wasn’t, for example, a separate and unrelated confrontation between the employee and his boss. Hypothetically speaking, if someone from the plaintiff’s work had showed up at his house and lit his house on fire while screaming obscenities, the probable IIED that would arise as a result of that encounter would present a very strong likelihood of not arising out of his employment, and therefore that common law claim would likely withstand the exclusivity provision, providing the plaintiff with a common law legal remedy.

If you have suffered a work-related injury in Massachusetts, you may be entitled to receive workers’ compensation benefits. At the law firm of Pulgini & Norton, our Massachusetts workers’ compensation lawyers offer comprehensive guidance and representation in these matters. Call our office today at (781) 843-2200, or you can contact us online in order to schedule an initial consultation.

More Blog Posts:
Back Injuries and Workers’ Compensation Claims under Massachusetts Law, Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog, published February 11, 2015

The “Going and Coming Rule” in Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Cases, Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog, published February 4, 2015

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