Woman Sues Employer over Deceased Daughter’s Photos

September 6, 2011 (PLANSPONSOR.com) – A New Jersey court has found a boss did not intentionally inflict emotional distress upon a worker by asking her to remove her dead daughter's photos and ballet slippers from her cubicle and telling her to stop speaking of her daughter.

The Courthouse News Service reports that a Middlesex County Court ruled in the defendants’ favor, and a three-judge panel for the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellative Division affirmed the decision. 

“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,” Judge Victor Ashrafi wrote, according to the news report. 

“We have previously said conduct in the workplace will rarely be so egregious as to give rise to a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress,” the judge wrote, noting other cases where former employees accused their employers of intentional infliction of emotional distress also had elements of workplace discrimination. 

Ashrafi said although a jury might find that the worker’s boss was “insensitive” or “negligent of plaintiff’s vulnerability in her continuing bereavement,” his behavior did not sink to the level of being “atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community” —the standard necessary to sustain a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress.   

According to the news report, for 12 years, Cecelia Ingraham worked in the marketing department for Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical. In 2003, her teenage daughter, Tatiana, was diagnosed with leukemia. She died in 2005.  

Ingraham displayed her daughter’s photos and ballet slippers in her cubicle. After a year-and-a-half, her boss, Carl DeStefanis told her to take them down. He allegedly told her that several of her co-workers had complained about her tendency to talk about her daughter’s death, which made them uncomfortable. 

He said she could “no longer speak of her daughter because she is dead” and should act as if her daughter “did not exist,” the ruling states. 

Ingraham sued Ortho-McNeil, Johnson & Johnson and DeStefanis for discrimination, constructive discharge and intentional infliction of emotional distress.