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Grieving mom can’t get damages from ‘cold-hearted’ employer

One New Jersey employer found itself sued for telling a grieving mother that it was time to pull herself together.

But yesterday a state appeals court decided that the employer was not liable for the employee’s alleged emotional injuries from the harsh words of  advice. 

The case involved an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim brought by Cecelia Ingraham against Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical. Ingraham worked as an administrative assistant in the marketing department at the company’s Raritan, New Jersey facility. 

Ingraham’s pride and joy was her only child, Tatiana. The teenager would have made any parent beam with pride. 

Tatiana was a member of the National Honor Society, National Latin Society, and National Art Society. She had been accepted by Cornell University and planned to study biology as a pre-med student. An accomplished dancer, Tatiana studied at the New Jersey School of Ballet. 

Unfortunately, in 2003 Tatiana was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic cancer during her junior year in high school and passed away in May 2005. Her high school graduated her posthumously with top honors. 

Of course, Ingraham’s grief was immeasurable. She kept pictures of Tatiana in her cubicle at work. And in a heart-rending tribute, the woman also kept her daughter’s ballet slippers on display in her workspace.

Ingraham’s co-workers were understanding at first, but a year and a half after Tatiana’s death, Carmen Harris, a human resources manager at Ortho-McNeill, was receiving complaints about the grieving mother’s interaction with her co-workers.

Employees in the marketing department allegedly complained that Ingraham made them uncomfortable by continuing to speak about Tatiana’s tragic passing. While they sympathized with Ingraham’s loss, after a year and a half her co-workers felt that there was not much more that could be said to console their colleague.

Harris contacted Carl DeStefanis, the head of the marketing department. DeStefanis scheduled a sit down with Ingraham to discuss the problem.

On Friday, November 17, 2006, DeStefanis called Ingraham into a conference room where he explained that there had been complaints about her speaking of Tatiana and displaying her daughter’s pictures.

Further, DeStefanis allegedly told Ingraham that Tatiana’s pictures and ballet slippers had become a distraction in the workplace. According to Ingraham, he directed her to remove those items from her cubicle.

Ingraham described DeStefanis as being “cold” when he told her these things. And she couldn’t comprehend why her co-workers weren’t more understanding of her plight.

She described herself as “extremely distraught and upset” and “outraged” and “hurt” by the exchange with her boss. In fact, Ingraham was so upset that she left work that afternoon “crying” and “sobbing.”

According to Ingraham, shortly thereafter she needed to see her cardiologist for heart palpitations. Her condition was subsequently treated with an angioplasty procedure and medication.

Ingraham never returned to work, initially taking short-term disability leave and eventually resigning from her job.

She then sued DeStefanis and Ortho-McNeil for intentional infliction of emotional distress in New Jersey state court.

The trial court dismissed Ingraham’s complaint.

Yesterday the New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed that dismissal, deciding that Ingraham could not show that the defendants acted intentionally or recklessly, or that DeStefanis’s conduct was extreme and outrageous.

“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, but a severe reaction was not a risk that one should predict,” the court explained.

It observed that an “employer is not charged under tort law with a duty to avoid all emotional distress to employees, only such distress that is extreme, outrageous, and ‘utterly intolerable in a civilized community.’”

Further, the court stated that “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.” (Ingraham v. Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical

— Pat Murphy

patrick.murphy@lawyersusaonline.com

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