What Employees Need to Know about Emotional Distress Damages

Employment law cases can feel complicated. What are you rights? What kind of damages can you get? And what, exactly, is “emotional distress”? In this article, employment lawyer Charles E. Joseph explains what you need to know about emotional distress damages.

Types of Money Damages

Federal, state, and local laws allow workers to receive a variety of types of money damages for employment law violations.

If the employee lost her job as a result of discrimination or retaliation, she will be awarded back pay––the money she would have earned through the date of verdict if not for the illegal termination as well as front pay for projected future lost earnings if she has not yet found an equivalent job. Plaintiffs can also win punitive damages, designed to punish employers for violating the law.

Often, however, the largest single item of money damages comes in the form of emotional damages. This award compensates the plaintiff for the mental anguish caused by the employer’s illegal actions. Juries award emotional distress damages for both the suffering caused by the underlying discrimination or harassment and for the anguish caused by loss of a job, which is often severe.

Juries are free to award whatever amount they choose in emotional distress damages. In fact, it is not uncommon for juries to award millions of dollars.

Unfortunately, the jurors do not have the last word. The judge can reduce any award considered excessive. What counts as excessive? According to the law, excessive verdicts either “shock the conscience,” under federal law, or “deviate substantially from the norm,” under state and New York City law. Million dollar awards are usually––but not always––sharply reduced by the judge.
Types of Emotional Distress Damages

The specific definition for excessive awards varies depending on the court. So what amount of compensation will judges in New York City allow? There isn’t a standard rule. Judges classify emotional distress damages into three categories: garden variety, significant, and egregious.

Garden Variety Emotional Distress Damages

In garden variety claims, the evidence of emotional distress is generally limited to the plaintiff’s own testimony. As the law sometimes defines it, the victim in a garden variety claim “describes his or her injury in vague or conclusory terms, without relating either the severity or consequences of the injury.” In New York, garden variety claims merit awards ranging from $30,000 to $125,000.

Significant Emotional Distress Damages

Significant emotional distress claims provide evidence of more substantial harm. This can include evidence of treatment by a medical or healthcare professionals, or other corroborating witnesses. In New York, judges uphold jury awards for significant claims in the range of $50,000 to $200,000.

Egregious Emotional Distress Damages

Egregious claims involve “outrageous or shocking conduct,” or a significant impact on plaintiff’s physical health. Awards for “egregious” emotional distress can well exceed $200,000.
Emotional Distress Award Cases in New York

Judges in each district create informal rules about emotional distress damages based on their rulings. For example, in one 2014 garden variety case, a federal judge in Manhattan reduced a jury award for emotional distress from $250,000 to $80,000 because there was no corroborating testimony or evidence of lasting emotional impact. In 2008, a judge from the same court reduced a garden variety award of $125,000 to $25,000 because there was no medical testimony.

In cases that prove significant emotional distress, courts have upheld awards of $200,000 where psychiatric experts testify to emotional and physical manifestations of mental anguish.

An award just shy of $500,000 was upheld for egregious distress where the “plaintiff’s career was ruined because defendant spread rumors that plaintiff was a ‘gay child molester’ and plaintiff became suicidal for years.”

An award of $1,320,000 was upheld where the victim had been subject to an “extraordinary and steadily intensifying drumbeat of racial insults, intimidation, and degradation over several years including being referred to as a n------ by 30% of his co-workers and finding in his car a stuffed toy monkey with a noose around its neck that caused post-traumatic stress disorder, short-term adjustment disorder, depression, a panic disorder and multiple hospitalizations.”

An award of $2,500,000 was reduced to $600,000 in the case of discrimination against a plaintiff suffering from cerebral palsy where the discrimination led to breakdowns and serious emotional trauma.

Lessons on Emotional Distress Damages

Juries award emotional distress damages in employment law cases around the country every day. And every day, judges decide if the damages fit the evidence, or if they should be reduced.

Victims of employment law violations can draw important lessons from these rulings. It’s important to remember that the evidence you present in your case often determines what a judge sees as an appropriate emotional distress award.

If you are suffering from emotional distress due to your employer’s illegal conduct, consider raising the issue with your doctor. Industrial psychologists tell us that job loss often has the same emotional impact as learning of serious, even terminal, illness or the loss of a primary relationship.

Before taking a case to trial, also consider whether coworkers can corroborate your distress; additional testimony can sometimes mean thousands of dollars more in emotional distress damages.

Even cases that settle out of court often use the informal ranges that judges allow for emotional distress damages. That’s another reason why plaintiffs need a reputable, informed attorney on their side, fighting for their rights. Your attorney will know the informal ranges in your jurisdiction, which can help you receive a fair settlement.

Whether your claim is resolved through out of court negotiation or at trial, evidence such as your medical records and witness testimony are vital to receiving fair emotional distress damages.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charles Joseph
Charles Joseph has over two decades of experience in employment law. He is the founding partner of Joseph and Kirschenbaum, a firm that has recovered over $120 million for clients, and the creator of Working Now and Then.

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Disclaimer: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication at the time it was written. It is not intended to provide legal advice or suggest a guaranteed outcome as individual situations will differ and the law may have changed since publication. Readers considering legal action should consult with an experienced lawyer to understand current laws and.how they may affect a case. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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