Somewhat Improved Healthy Workplace Bill

… But Still Needs Work

The heretofore anemic  Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) has received a dose of iron in its latest iteration in Massachusetts.

The version of the  HWB subpumping ironmitted for consideration to the Massachusetts’ legislature omits  the  $25,000 cap on damages for targets who were not subjected to demotion or dismissal.

The Workplace Bullying Institute has pushed the HWB, written by Suffolk University Law Professor David C. Yamada,  for more than a decade as part of state-by-state campaign to pass workplace anti-bullying legislation.  More than 20 states have considered the HWB bill since  2002 but none as yet have adopted it.  This year the bill is under consideration in about a half dozen states.

International scholars criticized the HWB in recent years because it was far less protective of targets of workplace bullying than laws and regulations of other industrialized countries.

This blog criticized the HWB’s  requirements that targets prove malice and psychological damage (the latter was expressly rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in federal anti-discrimination laws) and the unreasonably low cap on damages.

The revised bill still defines an abusive work environment as one where “an employer or one or more of its employees, acting with intent to cause pain or distress to an employee, subjects that employee to abusive conduct that causes physical harm, psychological harm, or both.”

How would one go about providing that a  bully acted “with intent to cause pain  or distress?”  I have no idea. Suggestions?

In addition,  workplace bullying almost always involves psychological harm. The bill’s requirement to prove psychological harm penalizes poor people and members of minority groups who tend to visit mental health professionals far less frequently for monetary or cultural reasons.  In addition, this approach was explicitly rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court as a requirement in race and sex  discrimination cases involving a hostile workplace . (Harris v. Forklift System510 U.S. 17 (1993)).

The proposed  Massachusetts bill,  sponsored by Rep. Ellen Story and Sen. Katherine Clark.

A far better alternative to the problem of workplace bullying has been proposed by State Sen. Richard “Tick” Segerblom of Nevada.

Segerblom proposed extending the umbrella of  discrimination laws to protect any worker who is exposed to a “hostile work environment.”  Currently, only workers who have protected status under these laws by virtue of their race, sex, national original, etc. are protected.

If an employer or an employee are held to be in violation of the law, the Massachusetts bill  provides  that a court can  order any relief that is “deemed appropriate, including, but not limited to: reinstatement, removal of the offending party from the complainant’s work environment, back pay, front pay, medical expenses, compensation for pain and suffering, compensation for emotional distress, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees.”

According to the proposed bill, an abusive workplace environment is one where “an employer or one or more its employees, acting with intent to cause pain or distress to an employee, subjects that employee to abusive conduct that causes physical harm, psychological harm, or both.”

Abusive conduct involves “acts, omissions, or both, that a reasonable person would find abusive, based on the severity, nature, and frequency of the conduct … .”  This includes but is not limited to:

  • repeated verbal abuse such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets;
  • verbal, non-verbal, or physical conduct of a threatening, intimidating, or humiliating nature;
  • or the sabotage or undermining of an employee’s work performance.

The proposed Massachusetts bill continues to distinguish between targets of  bullying who have and have not been subjected to an adverse employment action (i.e., demotion or dismissal).  The cap is gone but the latter still cannot  recover from the employer  damages for  emotional distress or punitive damages unless the “actionable conduct was extreme and outrageous.” This limitation does not apply to “individually named defendants.”  Thus, an employee who did not suffer an adverse employment action can only seek monetary damages from bully unless the actionable conduct was extreme and outrageous.

The bill also prohibits retaliation against targets who complain and anyone else who testifies, assists or participates in an investigation of workplace bullying.

The stated purpose of the Massachusetts bill is to provide a “legal incentive for employers” to prevent and respond to abusive treatment of employers at work.

Under the bill, it is  an “aggravating factor” if the abusive conduct exploits an employee’s known psychological or physical illness or disability. In that case, a single act that is “especially severe and egregious” would be actionable.

Employers  can escape liability by showing they exercised “reasonable care to prevent and correct  promptly any actionable behavior; and, the complainant employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of appropriate preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer.”

Also, employers cannot be penalized if the complaint is based on an adverse employment action made for poor performance, misconduct or economic necessity, a reasonable performance evaluation or “an employer’s reasonable investigation about potentially illegal or unethical activity.”

The bill would require an employee to  file an action within a year of  the last act that constitutes the alleged violation.

Other Approaches to Workplace Bullying?

So far, efforts to combat bullying in the American workplace largely have centered on a campaign spurred by the Workplace Bully Institute to pass anti-bullying legislation on a state-by-state basis.  To date, the effort has yet to yield a single success (defined as a state that has adopted such legislation).

What would happen if workplace anti-bully advocates took a different approach?

One idea might be federal legislation to amend Title VII, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to  permit any worker to sue if subjected to a hostile workplace environment.

Another idea is to approach the problem as an important public  health issue  –  which it is – and adopt health and safety regulations to protect employees on that basis. Finally, one might think local – push cities and towns to adopt legislation to protect employees from workplace abuse.

Advocates for anti-obesity measures took the local approach, with some initial success.  However, industry groups are now finding a way to halt local initiatives, using stealth tactics to erect statewide road blocks.

Public health advocates persuaded some progressive cities and counties around the nation to pass anti-obesity measures, such as requiring restaurants to list fat and calorie content on their menus or to prepare food without unhealthy trans-fats.  The New York Times reported June 30, 2011 that  industry groups are acting pro-actively to quash these anti-obesity efforts. and they are using stealth tactics.

The Times notes that Ohio’s 5,000-page state budget contained sweeping limitations on local government control over restaurants.  Florida  adopted similar limits, tucked into a bill that largely concerned amendments to state regulations on vacation rentals. Other states with limits include Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Utah. Earlier this year, Arizona prohibited local governments from forbidding the marketing of fast food using “consumer incentives” like toys.

Not surprisingly, state restaurant groups are leading the charge for the preemptive state legislation.   State legislators who sponsored preemptive legislation in Florida and Alabama say they were contacted by their state’s restaurant associations, which expressed concern that California’s latest food rules would be adopted by their own local governments.

The Los Angeles City Council has banned fast food restaurants in South Los Angeles, where rates of poverty and obesity are high. In April, the Santa Clara County supervisors adopted a policy that forbids fast food restaurants from selling meals with toys, like those connected with movie promotions.

The Ohio law gives the state’s director of agriculture “sole and exclusive” authority to regulate the use of consumer incentives in food marketing and prohibits localities from requiring menu labeling and using incentives and laws to address “food-based health disparities.”  The statute may nullify a law passed by the Cleveland council in April that banned restaurants and food makers from using “industrially produced” trans fats in products.

One of the fundamental concepts of the U.S. Constitution involves the importance of state’s rights – the idea  is that real change and progress comes from experimentation among the states and not through a federal bureaucracy. It doesn’t take a PhD. to see that this concept also is relevant to states, which tend to  adopt progressive statewide legislation in response to local initiatives.   I’d rather be guided by the framers of our U.S. Constitution than self-interested industry groups. Wouldn’t you?

The state-by-state campaign to adopt workplace anti-bully legislation began in 2003 in California and has encountered steady opposition from business groups, who apparently are largely ignorant about the enormous toll bullying exacts on the employer’s bottom line.   This, despite the fact that the Workplace Bullying Institute is pushing a proposed Healthy Workplace Bill that is considerably weaker than legislation adopted in other industrialized countries around the world. American workers deserve strong protection from bullying in the workplace, which causes health problems and destroys lives and families.

* The new state laws limiting public health measures will have no effect on a federal law that requires menu labeling by chains with 20 or more restaurants by 2013. But more than half of the nation’s restaurants will not be required to meet the federal rules for listing calories and fat content.

NBC Should Fire Donald Trump!

Shows Lousy Leadership Skills

Donald Trump,  real estate mogul and boss of  The Celebrity Apprentice,  hit a new low this week when he fired a target of workplace bullying and retained the bully.

Trump retained Richard Hatch after Hatch, in his capacity of Project Leader, actually physically pushed away  his “employee,” David Cassidy, when Cassidy tried to make suggestions.

Hatch, who won the first Survivor reality TV show, is physically considerably larger than Cassidy, who is a performer and former teen idol. Hatch treated Cassidy like a pesky fly, physically pushing him away a couple of times.  At one point, Cassidy confronted Hatch, complaining that Hatch had physically touched Cassidy twice and telling him to stop.

Notably, Hatch did not physically touch any other team member.

In addition to physical bullying, Hatch repeatedly referred to Cassidy in demeaning terms, at one point calling  Cassidy delicate and one of the “little people.”

Meanwhile, in a behavior that is typical for a workplace bully, Hatch at first denied the abuse, which was caught on film, and then minimized the abuse.

Unfortunately, the scenario is all too typical.

In a 2008  poll by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 53 percent of targets of workplace bullying said they reported the abuse to their employer, and their employer substantially did nothing; 71 percent said the employer retaliated against them!

Cassidy and other team members reported the bullying to Donald Trump  but, sadly, Trump’s response was essentially to criticize Cassidy for failing to be more assertive.  Trump said  his gut  (which he said is always right)  told him to fire Cassidy and not Hatch. However, cynics might infer that Trump’s gut told him the villainous Hatch is better for ratings.

This is an appalling example of poor leadership for any boss but especially one who is making noises about running for the Republican nomination for U.S. President.  (I’m referring to Trump)

In addition to Cassidy, Trump  failed Cassidy’s team-mates. Witnesses of bullying often fear that they may be next, and experience guilt that they didn’t intervene on behalf of the bullied.  Several of Cassidy’s teammates watched in silence while Hatch physically dominated Cassidy.

Hatch, by the way, spent three years in prison for failing to pay taxes on his winnings from Survivor and subsequent earnings. (A federal judge ordered Hatch back to prison on 3/11/11 for nine months because he still hasn’t settled up with the IRS.) Fellow Survivor cast member Sue Hawk threatened to file a lawsuit after Hatch, while nude, brushed up against her during a Survivor challenge.

Hatch calls himself a corporate trainer.

God help us!

By the way, for all you employers out there who think the workplace should be a battleground, here’s an overview and definition of the tort of battery.

Battery occurs when the defendant’s acts intentionally cause harmful or offensive contact with the victim’s person. [See Restatement §§ 13, 16, 18.] While battery requires intent, the prevailing tort definition does not require an intent to harm. It is only necessary that the defendant intend to cause either harmful or offensive contact.  [From: J. Diamond, et. al, Understanding Torts (Lexis-Nexis, 2010)].

– PGB

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The Healthy Workplace Bill is Anemic

The proposed Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) is touted as model legislation to combat workplace bullying in the United States but is it as healthy as it should be for American workers?

No, says an international expert writing in a special issue of Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal entitled, The Law of Workplace Bullying: An International Overview, Volume 32, Number 1, Fall 2010.

“It is of note that efforts to have legislation adopted in the Unites States seem to raise the bar far higher than would be acceptable in any of the other countries studied here,” says Professor Katherine Lippel, the editor of the issue and Canada Research Chair in Occupational Health and Safety Law, University of Ottawa, Canada,

The HWB was drafted by Professor David Yamada of Suffolk University, Boston, MA,  founder of the New Workplace Institute, and is supported by the Workplace Bullying Institute founded by Gary and Ruth Namie.

Ms. Lippel said the HWB contains restrictive requirements not found in other such laws around the world. Specifically, she cites its requirement that the Plaintiff show malicious intent to bully and provide evidence that he or she suffered tangible psychological or physical harm.

Here’s what Ms. Lippel has to say about the proposed requirement of proof of malicious intent:

“The requirement of malicious intention is of particular concern, and is not a requirement in the other legislation studied in this issue … Most legislation does not require evidence of the intention of the perpetrator of harassment (see for instance the interpretation and application of the legislation in France and Québec, and the Code of practice in Spain), and while malicious intent may lead to an increased award in Germany, evidence of intent is not required in the application of remedies provided for either in contract or tort liability contexts.”

It should also be noted that proof of malice is not a requirement for “hostile workplace” claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which protects victims who are discriminated on the basis of race, sex, national original, etc.  They need prove malice only if they are seeking the additional remedy of punitive damages.

Here’s what Ms. Lippel has to say about the proposed requirement of proof of tangible harm:

“Similarly, the proposed Healthy Worker Bill imposes an evidentiary requirement that has been critiqued as being “an over-high standard of severity,”…  requiring evidence of tangible harm to the plaintiff … It is understandable that the difficult context applicable in the United States with regard to rights of workers may favor a more restrictive legislative approach for purposes of political expediency, yet even some authors from the United States have expressed concern with the restrictive conditions proposed in the Healthy Workplace Bill.”

It should also be noted here that proving tangible  psychological or physical harm is not required by federal discrimination laws for other victims of a hostile workplace environment.  In fact, the requirement was expressly rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1993 sexual harassment case.  In Harris v. Forklift Systems., the U. S. Supreme Court said the protection of federal law comes into play before the harassing conduct leads to a nervous breakdown.  (See Harris v. Forklift Sys., 510 U.S. 17 (1993))

The Supreme Court also said:  “Certainly Title VII bars conduct that would seriously affect a reasonable person’s psychological well-being, but the statute is not limited to such conduct. So long as the environment would reasonably be perceived, and is perceived, as hostile or abusive … there is no need for it also to be psychologically injurious.”

Furthermore, the requirement to prove psychological harm would be a burden for targets who don’t have health care coverage,  the funds to see a therapist or the cultural disposition to seek psychiatric care. According to the Office of Minority Health, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 19.5 percent of African-Americans in comparison to 10.4 percent of non-Hispanic whites were uninsured in 2007.

Overwhelming research shows that bullying causes  stress that may contribute to physical harm that only becomes apparent many years later – such as heart disease.  Shouldn’t this be taken into account?

Ms. Lippel prefaces her remarks with the admonition that, “The actual content of the legislation on workplace bullying, if there is to be legislation, requires reflection.”

There is one other striking problem with the HWB that is not discussed in the special issue.  The HWB places a seemingly arbitrary cap on damages for targets of bullying who did not experience an adverse employment action, such as demotion or dismissal. The cap on emotional distress damages is $25,000 and targets are prohibited from seeking punitive damages. This cap is so low that it is unlikely that the HWB would serve as a deterrent to employers.  And, in a worst case scenario, the family of target driven to suicide by bullying would be able recover barely enough to pay for a decent funeral – all because the target was not demoted or fired. In short, the only damages available to a target of workplace bullying in this situation would be compensatory, i.e. the payment of medical bills.

Namie and Yamada have expressed concern about burdening the court system with cases that rest on “hurt feelings” rather than true bullying. But they fail to explain why this concern wouldn’t apply equally to any other lawsuit involving a hostile work claim, including sexual harassment or race discrimination lawsuits.  Why should targets of workplace bullying be singled out?

The U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly has said that Title VII doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious.  Unwelcome conduct becomes illegal when it is so severe and pervasive that it interferes with the target’s work performance or creates a work atmosphere that is offensive or abusive. (Meritor Sav. Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986)).

The Journal is a publication of the University of Illinois College of Law and The International Society for Labor Law and Social Security. The special issue may be available for perusal at your local law library. It can be found online at Lexis/Nexis, Westlaw, and HeinOnline. It is available for purchase ($10) at the journal’s web site: http://www.law.uiuc.edu/publications/cll&pj/contact.html

– by Patricia Barnes

*** Note: This article was updated on 2/7/12

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