Some cases are easy to explain in a short blog post.
This is not one of them.
But a new Connecticut Appellate Court case released today, Grasso v. Connecticut Hospice, Inc. (download here) has too many nuggets of information to pass up. It is an example to employers about how cases never truly seem to be over in this litigious climate and that details are important — even in settlement agreements.
Here are the background facts:
- Plaintiff employee worked as an employee for the hospice from 1998-2010.
- In 2009, she filed two complaints with OSHA regarding some defective chairs. The administration ordered the hospice to repair the chairs.
- Later that year, the Plaintiff then filed a whistleblower complaint with OSHA claiming that she had been retaliated against and harassed since the filing of the OSHA complaints. The administration found “reasonable cause” to believe a violation had occurred.
- Thus in January 2010, the Hospice and Plaintiff entered into a settlement agreement on the whistleblower complaint where she worked as a part time employee in two offices. The agreement contained a release of future claims for events that occurred prior to the execution of the agreement.
- End of story, right? Wrong. One week later, the Plaintiff-Employee wrote to the company and alleged that they were breaching the settlement agreement. Later that year, she quits.
- You know what happens next, right? She filed a six-count complaint in Superior Court alleging a whistleblower violation, breach of the settlement agreement, breach of the employee handbook and claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress. The defendant filed a counterclaim asking for declaratory judgment on the release she signed. The Superior Court granted summary judgment to the employer.
The legal rulings
- The first part of the ruling is a procedural one. The Plaintiff appealed the court’s decision on her claims but not the counterclaims. Thus, part of her claims of a breach of the employee handbook are not considered by the Appellate Court.
- But next the court looked at whether the settlement agreement had been breached. The court concluded it was not. The agreement stated that it did not alter the at-will relationship and that it does not provide “any greater or lesser rights or privileges than any other employee.” The court rejected Plaintiff’s claim that this language required her to be treated equally as other employees as to office space, access to the workplace, etc.
- The court then looked at the emotional distress claims. Plaintiff claimed, among other things, that the change of assignment of work offices caused her more stress while driving. Indeed, she describes one incident where she spent more than an hour in the car stuck in traffic and arrived at the office “shaking and crying from the long commute”.
- Her doctor provided her with a note advising her to avoid long and stressful drives because it causes her stress. The employer suggested that perhaps she take FMLA time and rejected her claims of accommodation to a prior job because it no longer existed. Eventually, Plaintiff quit, claiming she was “constructively discharged”.
- (As an aside, anyone who has travelled I-95 or the Merritt Parkway has experienced this type of traffic — and would think that an “hour long” commute might be getting off easy.)
- The court rejected the negligent infliction of emotional distress claim because that claim that only be used for conduct in the termination process itself, not the events leading up to a termination. (For more on NIED claims, see a prior post here.) A constructive discharge case like this doesn’t qualify.
- As for the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, the court had some very helpful language for employers.
A vindictive conspiracy to terminate a plaintiff’s employment, even if true, would not necessarily be sufficient to state a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
- In short, because the settlement agreement called for driving as part of her job duties going forward, the court rejected claims that the employer acted outrageously in its actions.
The takeaways for employers from this case are threefold.
- Beware the self-righteous employee who is looking for a fight, any fight, with the employer. They are rare indeed, but
- Even when you win, you may still end up dealing with a case for years. If you do reach an agreement, be sure that the language used leaves no wiggle room for interpretation.
- The employer does not have to provide a sanitized workplace. Long, tiring commute for employees — while certainly not ideal — do not amount to legal claims. When an employee raises these issues, however, it still may be necessary to discussion an accommodation (if related to an ADA issue) or alternatives, if they exist.