Court Rules Boss Can Tell Grieving Mom To Act As If Her Daughter Never Existed
A New Jersey mom sued her boss after he told her to remove her dead daughter's photo and ballet slippers from her cubicle and act as if her daughter "did not exist." The mom lost, and now she's trying to take the case to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
Cecilia Ingraham's teenage daughter, Tatiana, died of leukemia in 2005, a few months before her Cornell University orientation. After a year and a half of keeping Tatiana's memorabilia in her cubicle, Ingraham's boss, Carl DeStafanis, told her it was "disruptive" and to please get rid of it.
DeStafanis told Ingraham that she could "no longer speak of her daughter because she is dead." Ingraham tearfully exited, filed for short-term disability after having heart surgery, and eventually resigned.
According to Ingraham's lawyer, Neil Mullin, this is a whitewashed version of events. DeStafanis was a high-level employee who Ingraham barely knew, and during the half-hour exchange DeStefanis was allegedly "relentless," as Ingraham fell apart before his eyes.
"You want me to act as if my daughter was never alive?" Mullin said Ingraham asked her superior. "Yes," he allegedly replied.
According to DeStafinis, several co-workers had complained that Ingraham's frequent mentions of her dead daughter made them uncomfortable. Mullin claims that he was able to prove that this was false testimony.
When Ingraham left the building, she started having heart palpitations and went to the hospital. There, she had a full nervous breakdown.
"She was in grieving before, seeing a grief counselor and getting to work everyday," said Mullin. "This was a shattering experience for her."
Ingraham decided to fight back. She got in touch with Mullin.
"It wasn't about the money," said Mullin. "As a father with children I was appalled that a high-level manager at a major American corporation would act in this sadistic way. To me, a grieving mother is a sacred thing."
Mullin looked for precedents involving bereavement in the workplace, but couldn't find any. He considered suing for disability discrimination, but ultimately abandoned that route. Disability laws, after all, only apply if the person is suffering from a medical condition, like clinical depression. But Ingraham wasn't suffering from depression. She was in mourning.
They decided to sue instead for intentional infliction of emotional distress. In order to sustain that claim in New Jersey, the behavior must be "atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community."
It's a very high standard. Bosses are often cruel and abusive. In a 2010 Zogby poll, 35 percent of American adults said that they had been bullied at work. But usually that cruelty and abuse is perfectly legal. Courts are reluctant to intervene in workplace politics, with all its hostility, head-butting and stress. The law can usually only swoop in when someone is the victim of discriminatory treatment based on their sex, race, age, religion or disability, or if there has been an imminent threat of violence.
The Middlesex County Court threw out the case, considering it too thin to even qualify for a jury trial. Mullin and Ingraham appealed to the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division, where a three-judge panel affirmed the County Court's decision.
Workplace As Dictatorship?
A racial slur is "atrocious." Mocking someone's chronic disease is "utterly intolerable." Telling someone to keep their bereavement out of the workplace is "insensitive," according to Ashrafi, but legally protected.
"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," Ashrafi wrote.
Mullin and Ingraham are now petitioning the New Jersey Supreme Court to take the case. Mullin is hoping to set a precedent about how bereavement is handled in the workplace. After all, millions of Americans a year lose a loved one, and there's no law to prevent employers from stifling those people and their mourning process.
"We love our democracy in our government," said Mullin. "But the workplace is allowed to be something of a dictatorship."
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