Telling Employees to Stop Talking About Their Dead Kids Is OK, Says Court

A New Jersey woman sued her employer after being told to remove her deceased daughter's ballet slippers and photo from her cubicle and to also pretend like the girl "did not exist." Whoah, harsh! But perfectly legal, said the court presiding over her case.

Back in 2006, Cecelia Ingraham—an administrative assistant at Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical's Raritan, NJ facility—had a conversation with her boss, Carl DeStefanis, during which DeStefanis allegedly informed her that her coworkers were made "uncomfortable" by her "tendency to talk about her daughter's death":

The co-workers said they sympathized with plaintiff, but they felt uncomfortable and at a loss for "what else that we can say that we have not said already." The co-workers said they tended to avoid contact with plaintiff and to take work or questions elsewhere.

The year before, Ingraham's teenage daughter—a ballet dancer who'd been accepted to Cornell—had died of an incurable infection related to acute lymphocytic leukemia. Ingraham had hung her daughter's toe shoes in her cubicle as a little tribute of sorts, but DeStefanis told her she had to take them down. She also had to remove her daughter's pictures because they constituted a workplace "disruption" and stop talking about her daughter altogether "because she is dead."

Ingraham did not take this news very well! She left work crying, and eventually resigned. Then she sued Ortho-McNeil and DeStefanis for intentional infliction of emotional distress, constructive discharge (when a worker quits because workplace conditions have become "intolerable"), and violations of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. Certainly DeStefanis's words inflicted emotional distress upon the poor grieving Ingraham! But for her claim to prevail, Ingraham also had to show that DeStefanis had intended to cause her distress (or been reckless in doing so) and acted extremely and outrageously; in its opinion on the matter, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division said she hadn't proved this, and found for the defendants.

"There is no question that any reasonable employer should know that telling a grieving mother not to talk about her deceased daughter might cause emotional distress," states the court's opinion, "but a severe reaction was not a risk that one should predict." Also:

"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.

It's true that if courts had to preside over every instance of rude and thoughtless boss behavior, they'd never have time to consider any other kinds of cases. For this reason, courts tend to set a pretty high bar when it comes to determining that behavior is "extreme." Bosses can get away with all kinds of humiliating, stress-inducing, and even punitive acts, as this article tells us. In New Jersey, a boss's behavior has to be "regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community"; given that DeStefanis had told sad Mom Ingraham that if she felt like she really had to talk about her daughter, she could "come into [his] office and speak of her behind closed doors," it can't be said that he acted like an ogre. Also, Ingraham had apparently never broken down emotionally in such a severe manner before, so there wasn't any way for DeStefanis to be on notice.

Life is tough.

[Courthouse News Service, image via Shutterstock]