Can I Sue My Employer for Verbal Abuse?
Yes, you may be able to sue your employer for verbal abuse. Although state law generally doesn't recognize it as a separate cause of action, in some cases verbal abuse can constitute illegal workplace discrimination under state and federal law. If the verbal abuse is severe and outrageous enough, you may also be able to sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress. We discuss this claim in another article on workplace harassment, but we will go over the nuts and bolts here.
A lawsuit against your employer for verbal abuse is generally considered an employment law case. This type of case can get complicated, so you may want to consult an experienced employment law attorney and get a better sense of what your legal rights are before you take the plunge.
Verbal Abuse in the Workplace
It can be hard enough to grind away for eight hours a day, staring at a computer screen in your 6' by 6' cubicle, which you've decorated with photos and kids' drawings in an attempt to preserve some form of sanity and joy. But nothing is more soul-shattering than suffering some obnoxious supervisor standing over you, screaming about productivity, deadlines, and your general inadequacy as an employee and a person.
Do you have to put up with this? Is there anything you can do?
What Is Verbal Abuse?
Verbal abuse, generally speaking, is the use of words to cause someone else harm. It can be hard to define, but we all know it when we see it.
Verbal abuse can include the following:
- Insults and other offensive language
Some employers may use their perceived position of authority to mistreat subordinates or coworkers. What may be worse is that victims of verbal abuse often blame themselves and are reluctant to take action to make the abuse stop.
Verbal Abuse Causes Real Harm
Over time, verbal abuse can lead to significant health problems. These can include:
- PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)
- Other psychological distress
- Physical health symptoms (e.g., insomnia, high blood pressure, headaches, etc.)
So verbal abuse in the workplace can have a profound impact on more than just an employee's morale. But there are steps you can take to make it stop, and if it doesn't, you may be able to get legal relief.
Verbal Abuse as Employment Discrimination
In some instances, verbal abuse can be illegal employment discrimination. Employment discrimination violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other federal and state discrimination laws.
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), illegal discrimination is unwelcome conduct (including verbal abuse) based upon one of the following protected characteristics:
- National origin
- Sex (including pregnancy, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity)
- Age (beginning at 40)
- Genetic information
These categories are called protected classes. In many states, there are other protected characteristics, such as marital status.
It's not enough to show the isolated or even the occasional rude, bullying, or even racist comment. Your employer can be a jerk (choose a more colorful word if you want) without violating the law. But verbal abuse in the workplace becomes illegal employment discrimination if it creates what's called a hostile work environment.
Verbal Abuse Can Create a Hostile Work Environment
To establish a hostile work environment, you must show your employer verbally abused you based upon a protected trait and that the abuse was so severe and pervasive that a reasonable person would consider the work environment hostile, intimidating, or abusive. This may sound somewhat circular — it's a hostile work environment if it's a hostile work environment — but that's the legal standard.
If you prove you're in a hostile work environment, your employer is automatically liable for any damages you suffer (see below) unless they can show:
- They reasonably tried to promptly correct the harassing behavior (which is not likely if your abuser is your boss)
- You unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventative or corrective opportunities provided by them (such as filing a complaint with human resources)
Filing a Claim for Verbal Abuse: An EEOC Charge
Even if you are experiencing a hostile work environment, you first have to file what's called a charge of discrimination with the EEOC (or a state agency with enforcement authority). A charge is a signed statement that asserts that your boss engaged in employment discrimination and asks that the EEOC step in and help.
There are time limits. Although there are certain exceptions, it's safest to file as soon as possible, certainly within 180 days from the date of the abuse, unless your lawyer specifically tells you otherwise. You can lose your legal options by waiting too long.
Filing a Claim for Verbal Abuse: EEOC Action
Once the EEOC receives a charge, it investigates. If it believes the verbal abuse created an illegal hostile work environment, it will notify you in writing of your right to sue. You then have 90 days in which to bring a lawsuit.
If it finds your charge credible, the EEOC may try to get you and your employer to resolve your dispute through a voluntary process called conciliation. If the parties agree to settle, you don't need to go to court.
If you can't work it out, however, the EEOC then has a decision to make. It can either sue your employer in federal court, or it can close your case. If it closes your case, you would then have 90 days in which to bring your own lawsuit.
These time limits are critical, so don't lose sight of them.
You Can Recover Damages for A Hostile Work Environment
If you can show you were a victim of workplace verbal abuse, you may be able to recover money for three categories of what are called damages:
- Compensatory damages (money to compensate you for the harm you suffered)
- Punitive damages (money designed to punish the wrongdoer for particularly outrageous behavior)
- Attorneys' fees
As you can see, this all gets quite complicated. If you believe you may have been subjected to unlawful workplace discrimination and want to get legal advice about your rights, you should consider consulting an experienced employment lawyer.
Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
You may also be able to sue your employer under state law for verbal abuse that results in severe emotional distress. To prove what is called intentional infliction of emotional distress, you must show:
- Your employer acted intentionally or recklessly
- The verbal abuse was extreme and outrageous
- The verbal abuse caused you emotional distress
- The distress you suffered was severe (in some states, you have to show you suffered physical, not just emotional, harm)
Courts can award compensatory damages, which can include not just emotional distress damages but also, among other things, lost wages for the time you were unable to work and your medical bills. If your employer's conduct is particularly bad, you may be able to recover punitive damages.
Seek legal advice from a personal injury attorney if you want to learn more about a state law emotional distress lawsuit and whether going to court makes sense for you. Most offer a free consultation.
Don't Put Up With Verbal Abuse From Your Employer
If you are a victim of verbal abuse, there are steps you can and should take.
Tell Your Boss to Stop
You may just want it to stop. The first step is to tell your boss, firmly but politely, of course, to knock it off. Stand up for yourself. Bullies often back down if you stand your ground. It's also possible that your boss may be being abusive without even realizing it (for example, some people don't appreciate just how harmful sarcasm can be).
In either case, if you point out to your boss that they're being verbally abusive and ask that they stop, they may stop without the need for any further action on your part. Problem solved.
Go Over Your Boss's Head
If that doesn't work, the next step is to go over your boss's head. In a small company, that may involve reporting the behavior their supervisor or even the owner of the company.
Larger companies generally have human resource departments. You could contact the human resource department and explain your circumstances. They typically will investigate your complaint and take appropriate action. They don't want a lawsuit (or a good employee to quit), so they will likely take you seriously.
Don't worry: It's illegal for your employer to retaliate against you for complaining about unlawful workplace bullying, abuse, and harassment. If they do, you can sue for wrongful termination. Remember that you are better served in court if you have given your employer the chance to take corrective action before you file a lawsuit.
If the Verbal Abuse Doesn't Stop, Consult a Lawyer
If none of these steps work, you should consider getting legal advice from an experienced employment attorney. You may have no choice but to file a charge with the EEOC or an appropriate state agency, and a lawyer can help guide you through this process. You will also want to have a good law firm in your corner if you're unhappy with the EEOC's resolution and you want to take legal action.
Not every boss is kind and gentle. Sometimes, they say or do offensive or hurtful things. Unfortunately, much of that is to be expected. But sometimes, they cross a line.
If they do, don't put up with mistreatment or other workplace harassment. There are things you can do.