… But Still Needs Work
The heretofore anemic Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) has received a dose of iron in its latest iteration in Massachusetts.
The version of the HWB submitted for consideration to the Massachusetts’ legislature omits the $25,000 cap on damages for targets who were not subjected to demotion or dismissal.
The Workplace Bullying Institute has pushed the HWB, written by Suffolk University Law Professor David C. Yamada, for more than a decade as part of state-by-state campaign to pass workplace anti-bullying legislation. More than 20 states have considered the HWB bill since 2002 but none as yet have adopted it. This year the bill is under consideration in about a half dozen states.
International scholars criticized the HWB in recent years because it was far less protective of targets of workplace bullying than laws and regulations of other industrialized countries.
This blog criticized the HWB’s requirements that targets prove malice and psychological damage (the latter was expressly rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in federal anti-discrimination laws) and the unreasonably low cap on damages.
The revised bill still defines an abusive work environment as one where “an employer or one or more of its employees, acting with intent to cause pain or distress to an employee, subjects that employee to abusive conduct that causes physical harm, psychological harm, or both.”
How would one go about providing that a bully acted “with intent to cause pain or distress?” I have no idea. Suggestions?
In addition, workplace bullying almost always involves psychological harm. The bill’s requirement to prove psychological harm penalizes poor people and members of minority groups who tend to visit mental health professionals far less frequently for monetary or cultural reasons. In addition, this approach was explicitly rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court as a requirement in race and sex discrimination cases involving a hostile workplace . (Harris v. Forklift System, 510 U.S. 17 (1993)).
The proposed Massachusetts bill, sponsored by Rep. Ellen Story and Sen. Katherine Clark.
A far better alternative to the problem of workplace bullying has been proposed by State Sen. Richard “Tick” Segerblom of Nevada.
Segerblom proposed extending the umbrella of discrimination laws to protect any worker who is exposed to a “hostile work environment.” Currently, only workers who have protected status under these laws by virtue of their race, sex, national original, etc. are protected.
If an employer or an employee are held to be in violation of the law, the Massachusetts bill provides that a court can order any relief that is “deemed appropriate, including, but not limited to: reinstatement, removal of the offending party from the complainant’s work environment, back pay, front pay, medical expenses, compensation for pain and suffering, compensation for emotional distress, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees.”
According to the proposed bill, an abusive workplace environment is one where “an employer or one or more its employees, acting with intent to cause pain or distress to an employee, subjects that employee to abusive conduct that causes physical harm, psychological harm, or both.”
Abusive conduct involves “acts, omissions, or both, that a reasonable person would find abusive, based on the severity, nature, and frequency of the conduct … .” This includes but is not limited to:
- repeated verbal abuse such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets;
- verbal, non-verbal, or physical conduct of a threatening, intimidating, or humiliating nature;
- or the sabotage or undermining of an employee’s work performance.
The proposed Massachusetts bill continues to distinguish between targets of bullying who have and have not been subjected to an adverse employment action (i.e., demotion or dismissal). The cap is gone but the latter still cannot recover from the employer damages for emotional distress or punitive damages unless the “actionable conduct was extreme and outrageous.” This limitation does not apply to “individually named defendants.” Thus, an employee who did not suffer an adverse employment action can only seek monetary damages from bully unless the actionable conduct was extreme and outrageous.
The bill also prohibits retaliation against targets who complain and anyone else who testifies, assists or participates in an investigation of workplace bullying.
The stated purpose of the Massachusetts bill is to provide a “legal incentive for employers” to prevent and respond to abusive treatment of employers at work.
Under the bill, it is an “aggravating factor” if the abusive conduct exploits an employee’s known psychological or physical illness or disability. In that case, a single act that is “especially severe and egregious” would be actionable.
Employers can escape liability by showing they exercised “reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any actionable behavior; and, the complainant employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of appropriate preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer.”
Also, employers cannot be penalized if the complaint is based on an adverse employment action made for poor performance, misconduct or economic necessity, a reasonable performance evaluation or “an employer’s reasonable investigation about potentially illegal or unethical activity.”
The bill would require an employee to file an action within a year of the last act that constitutes the alleged violation.