February 18, 2014
Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress as a Tag-Along to Retaliatory Discharge in Tennessee
The Tennessee Court of Appeals has decided a case which may open the door to (or which, at a minimum clarifies the standards for) a plaintiff to include a claim for "negligent infliction of emotional distress" (NIED) as a tag-along to a claim for retaliatory discharge from employment. The case, decided February 14, 2014 by the Court of Appeals, Western Section, is Coleman v. Humane Society of Memphis. In this case, the Court permitted the plaintiff's claims on both theories (retaliatory discharge and NIED) to proceed to trial.
Tennessee law regarding NIED claims is complicated, to say the least. Tennessee authorities have distinguished claims based in negligence from claims based on intentional conduct, and in order to avoid trivial claims based upon negligence, Tennessee has required medical or scientific proof of a serious emotional injury in cases involving NIED claims... except that in cases where NIED is a "parasitic" claim, rather than a "stand alone" claim, no medical or scientific proof is required. So, what claims are "parasitic" and what claims are "stand alone?" (To answer that question would require considerably more discussion that can be presented here).
In the Coleman case, the employer argued that the plaintiff's NIED claim was necessarily a stand-alone claim requiring expert proof, because the plaintiff had not alleged any "physical injury," but had only alleged economic losses. The employer also argued that a negligence claim cannot be "parasitic to" a claim based upon intentional conduct. The Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that the NIED claim "flowed from the retaliatory discharge," despite the fact that no physical injuries were alleged. Therefore, the NIED claim was "parasitic," and the plaintiff did not have to offer expert medical or scientific evidence of a serious emotional injury.
This case contains an excellent survey discussion of NIED claims under Tennessee law, as well as a discussion of some interesting elements in retaliatory discharge cases. The law in these areas is full of nuances and subtle distinctions, and this opinion provides a great starting point for analyzing these claims.
For Tennessee employers and employment lawyers, Coleman arguably means that just about any time a plaintiff files a claim based upon retaliatory discharge, then so long as the plaintiff can allege some emotional harm resulting from the discharge, a NIED claim is likely viable. Does this really change the law of retaliatory discharge law in Tennessee? It may, because it arguably adds another basis for the recovery of damages for emotional injury-type claims, rather than just claims for economic losses such as back pay and front pay.