(CN) – A boss did not intentionally inflict emotional distress upon New Jersey mom by asking her to remove her dead daughter’s photos and ballet slippers from her cubicle and allegedly telling her to act as if her daughter “did not exist,” a state appeals court ruled.
For 12 years, Cecelia Ingraham worked in the marketing department for Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical. In 2003, her teenaged daughter, Tatiana, was diagnosed with leukemia.
Tatiana was accepted into Cornell University and hoped to study biology as a pre-med student. She also studied at the New Jersey School of Ballet.
However, she died in 2005 and graduated posthumously from high school with top honors.
Ingraham displayed her daughter’s photos and ballet slippers in her cubicle. After a year-and-a-half, her boss, Carl DeStefanis told her to take them down, according to her complaint.
He allegedly told her that several of her co-workers had complained about her tendency to talk about her daughter’s death, which made them uncomfortable.
And he said she could “no longer speak of her daughter because she is dead” and should act as if her daughter “did not exist,” the ruling states.
Ingraham left the building in tears, filed for short-term disability after having heart surgery and ended up resigning.
She sued Ortho-McNeil, Johnson & Johnson and DeStefanis for discrimination, constructive discharge and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Middlesex County Court ruled in the defendants’ favor, and a three-judge panel for the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellative Division affirmed the decision.
“The workplace has too many personal conflicts and too much behavior that might be perceived as uncivil for the courts to be used as the umpire for all but the most extreme workplace disputes,” Judge Victor Ashrafi wrote.
“We have previously said that conduct in the workplace will rarely be so egregious as to give rise to a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress,” the judge wrote, noting that other cases that other cases where former employees accused their employers of intentional infliction of emotional distress also had elements of workplace discrimination.
Although a jury might find that DeStefanis was “insensitive” or “negligent of plaintiff’s vulnerability in her continuing bereavement,” Ashrafi said DeStefanis’ behavior did not sink to the level of being “atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community” – the standard necessary to sustain a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress.