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Employment Blog

Exclusive Remedy of Worker’s Compensation Bars State Law Claims for Emotional Distress

Authored by Russell W. Wilson
Posted on February 1, 2016
Filed under Employment

The federal District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin dismissed two state law emotional distress claims in a lawsuit based on the exclusive remedy provision of the Wisconsin Worker’s Compensation Act (WCA).  The employee filed suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) alleging that the failure of her employer to provide requested leave under the Family Medical Leave Act constituted discrimination under the ADA.  In addition, the employee alleged two claims under Wisconsin law:  intentional infliction of emotional distress against her direct supervisor and negligent infliction of emotional distress against the supervisor and her employer.  Specifically, the employee alleged that her supervisor and employer had assigned her additional duties which caused her to gain weight, become diabetic, and to suffer sleep loss and panic attacks.  The allegations of the complaint made it clear that the allegedly injurious conduct occurred to the employee while she performed her work duties and her emotional injuries arose out of her work duties.

Under these allegations, the federal district court readily dismissed the emotional distress state law claims pursuant to established Wisconsin judicial decisions.  The federal district court judge reviewed, however, Wisconsin case law in the sexual harassment context.  Examining Lentz v. Young, 536 N.W.2d 451, 457 (Wis. Ct. App. 195), the court noted that Wisconsin’s exclusive remedy provision does not bar a claim for intentional sexual harassment where the perpetrator and the employer are one and the same.  In Lentz the sexual harasser was the business owner, who operated as a sole proprietorship.  The federal judge interpreted the Lentz case as presenting a “unique situation” where the concern is that “a sole proprietor would be able to use the WCA as a shield to protect himself or herself from liability for intentional acts against an employee.”  By contrast the perpetrator here, the direct supervisor, was clearly a co-employee and the alleged wrong was the denial of requested accommodation in the form of leave.  The case is Robinson v. Gateway Technical College, 2016 WL 344959 (E.D. Wis. January 26, 2016).

It should be noted that the state law claim barred by the exclusive remedy provision is for emotional distress.  The outcome would have been different if the complaint had alleged the supervisor had assaulted the employee with intent to cause her bodily harm (even though bodily harm typically entails emotional injury), which is explicitly carved out of the exclusive remedy provision.  It should also be noted that federal court decisions are not binding precedent in the Wisconsin courts or in the Department of Workforce Development.  Having said that, the dismissal of the state law emotional distress claims pursuant to the exclusive remedy provision of the WCA is not at all surprising.