Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Bullying Indiana Style Makes a (Limited) Comeback


Readers will know that in my ongoing campaign about the dangers of adoption of a "bullying" cause of action, one case that attracted considerable attention was that of a cardiac surgeon who was accused of being a workplace bully when he charged and yelled at a perfusionist (the fellow who operates the heart/lung machine during open heart surgery).

When the perfusionist sued the surgeon, his legal claims were intentional infliction of emotional distress and assault, but the trial strategy was to present Dr. Raess as a classic "workplace bully." The jury found for the surgeon on the intentional infliction claim, but for the perfusionist on the assault claim and awarded $325,000. See, Is My One Man Quest Against Bullying Failing?

On appeal the intermediate court threw out the award because the trial court allowed the testimony of a "bullying expert," Dr. Gary Namie and failed to give a requested instruction that "workplace bullying" was not an issue in the case and that there was no basis in the law for such a claim. See, First "Bullying" Case Goes Down in Flames .

Unfortunately, for the those of us who see this as a very dangerous trend, the Indiana Supreme Court today reversed the appellate court and re-instated the judgment of the trial court. Raess v. Doescher (Ind. 4/8/08) [pdf]. Although it will certainly get more limited attention in any media reports on this case than it should, it is very important to understand the really narrow basis of the decision on the "bullying aspects" of the case.

The opinion addresses two: 1) was admitting the testimony of Dr. Gary Namie as a workplace bullying expert error? and 2) did the Court err when it refused to submit the proposed instruction?

Unfortunately, the answer was no to both. However, the reason for the first was extremely limited -- the Court refused to decide the issue because it found the question of Dr. Namie's qualifications had not been preserved on appeal. (In defense of counsel for the surgeon, that seems to be a very strained reading of what happened.) The one dissenting judge makes clear that he not only found the error had been preserved but that he thought it was error to permit Dr. Namie's testimony. His view:

Dr. Namie by his own testimony is not a clinical psychologist and is not qualified to testify as to how workplace bullying affected the plaintiff, and he did not testify on that subject. This is testimony characterizing an event, but offering no assistance to interpret or understand it. Without any context, the "workplace bullying" label is noth-ing more than highly prejudicial name-calling of no help to the jury.

On the issue of the instruction, the Court fell back to the argument that in order to be error it must first be a correct statement of the law. In language that will no doubt be utilized in other "bullying" cases the Court said:

The tendered instruction advanced two concepts: (a) that "workplace bullying" was not an issue in the case, and (b) that the jury need not determine whether the defendant was a "workplace bully" to decide the case. As to the first concept, we disagree. In determining whether the defendant assaulted the plaintiff or committed intentional infliction of emotional distress, the behavior of the defendant was very much an issue. The phrase "workplace bullying," like other general terms used to characterize a person's behavior, is an entirely appropriate consideration in determining the issues before the jury. As evidenced by the trial court's questions to counsel during pre-trial proceedings, workplace bullying could "be considered a form of intentional infliction of emotional distress."

The Court did cite the trial judge's statement that the parties could argue about workplace bullying not being an issue and pointing out that he was not not giving an instruction that the case was about workplace bullying.

Hopefully any other Court cited this case as supportive of bringing bullying claims or offering "bullying" evidence, will see how limited it is.

It should be a case limited in its application; let's just hope that in trying to right one wrong, the Indiana Supreme Court has not opened the lid to a true Pandora's box. At a minimum, they certainly did nothing to help keep it shut.

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Comments:
Yelling, cursing, and screaming generally has no place in a work environment (outside, perhaps, the loading docks) and certainly no place in a hospital setting. With that, you surely agree.

So, how would you propose to remedy the situation?
 
Bullying is a very broad term. The real problem is when it takes the form of harassment. For it to be harassment the accuser would need to demonstrate that the bullying has occurred in a pattern rather than an isolated incident. It would also have to be shown to be discriminatory against an individual(s). There are sexual harassment and civil rights laws in place that address this kind of activity already. The protections they afford are helpful in reducing but certainly not eliminating those crimes. As a manager I have very little leverage in getting rid of bullies and would love to be able to just fire them.
 
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