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Workplace bullying: on the job with Scut Farkus

In the holiday classic A Christmas Story, playground bully Scut Farkus torments Ralphie Parker until Ralphie pummels Scut after one too many snowballs to the face. We cheer for Ralphie because he's the good kid who takes a stand against Scut's relentless bullying. But what happens when Scut gets a job? What is the law on workplace bullying?

I recently attended a community conversation about workplace bullying. The discussion confirmed that there is much confusion about the topic. The debate is no doubt fueled by recent media attention and legislative attempts to regulate bullying.

Those efforts have been partially successful in the school setting. For example, the State of Minnesota earlier this year passed the Safe and Supportive Schools Act. This new law defines and regulates bullying in the state's public and charter schools. However, workplacebullying is neither defined nor prohibited by any state or federal law.

Even if the conduct creates a hostile work environment, bullying alone is not unlawful unless the behavior violates some other established law. Recent court decisions emphasize how difficult it is to turn garden-variety bullying into a legal claim.

For example, in Johnson v City University of New York, an employee claimed that a co-worker's bullying violated Title VII. The judge last month threw out the case, saying:

Victims of non-discriminatory bullying at the workplace, like those treated unfairly for reasons other than their membership in a protected class, must look outside Title VII to secure what may be their fair due. The Court does not condone bullying, but it cannot read Title VII to protect its victims unless the bullying reflects discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals last year overturned a $270,000.00 Ramsey County jury verdict in favor of an employee who reported being bullied by his boss (see Absey v. Dish Network, LLC). Because Minnesota has no anti-workplace bullying law, the plaintiff's legal theory was actually based on Minnesota's whistle-blower law, Minn. Stat. ยง 181.932. In reversing the jury's verdict, the Court of Appeals ruled that the plaintiff failed to prove that the employer's adverse action against him was because he complained about his boss.

Bullied employees have found some limited success in the courts. In one Indiana case, Raess v. Doescher, an employee won a lawsuit based on his employer's behavior, which the court described as "aggressively and rapidly advanc[ing] on the plaintiff with clenched fists, piercing eyes, beet-red face, popping veins, and screaming and swearing at him." This conduct could certainly be characterized as "bullying," but the plaintiff won his case not because he was "bullied" but because the jury found the employer's conduct to be an assault under Indiana law.

These cases underscore the current reality that when employees are confronted by a Scut Farkus-like co-worker, there are no laws specifically defining or prohibiting workplace bullying. However, if the bully's conduct is egregious enough, there already exist other legal claims that could provide recourse. In addition to assault and whistle-blower claims, it is conceivable that under the right set of facts, bullied employees could successfully sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence or other wrongs based on another employee's bullying behaviors. And, when bullying is based on employees' protected class status, they may have viable claims under Title VII and/or comparable laws.

But rather than litigation and legislation, perhaps the better solution is to curb such behaviors through better employment policies and practices that encourage and model respectful working relationships.

For more information about this article, please contact me at taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney. Copyright 2014 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

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