A Wrongful Discharge Case Against An Employer for “Intimidating, Bullying and Humiliating” Under Conn. Gen. Stat. Section 31-49

A motion to strike is vehicle under Connecticut practice whereby a count in a complaint can be challenged as legally insufficient.

In a recent case, a motion to strike was denied and the court held that a common-law claim of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy could be maintained under Connecticut General Statute 31-49, even where the complaint alleged a statutory violation for wrongful discharge. Gonzales v. Lecoq Cuisine Corp., Sup.Ct. of Fairfield at Bridgeport, FST-CV-13- 6037490S, May 16, 2014 (Sommer, J.).

First, the statute. Conn. Gen. Stat. §31-49, provides, in relevant part, that “It shall be the duty of the master [employer] to exercise reasonable care to provide for his servant [employee] a reasonable safe place in which to work, reasonably safe appliances and instrumentalities for his work and fit and competent persons as his colaborers …” (emphasis added).

In this case, the plaintiff, employed as a sales representative, alleged that the CEO and owner, Lecoq, intimidated, bullied and humiliated in her daily work throughout her employment. On June 22, 2012, Lecoq suggested to the plaintiff on at least four occasions that she might improve the company’s sales with a particular client if should would engage the client’s male representative in sexual relations.

The plaintiff eventually resigned from the company, informing the company of the intolerable atmosphere created by Lecog’s sexual harassment. In response, the company threatened to sue her for libel and slander.

The plaintiff sued for sexual harassment, retaliation, failure to pay wages, wrongful discharge under 31-49’s public policy requiring employers to provide its employees with a reasonably safe place to work as well as reasonably fit and competent colaborers, negligence, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, breach of contract, breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

In its challenge to the wrongful discharge claim under 31-49, the defendents argued that the statute only permits claims where a workplace environment contains “substantial risk of death, disease or serious physical harm,” Daley v. Aetna Life & Casualty Co., 249 Conn. 766, 808 (1999), but not where workplace conditions are emotionally abusive.

The Court noted that a reading of 31-49 does not distinguish between physical injury and emotional distress. It merely requires a safe place in which to work. Here, the plaintiff alleged that the company failed “to appoint a fit and competent colaborer in Lecog” and that she was subjected to continued and intentional harassment in the form of “intimidating, bullying, and humiliating” in what ultimately became an unsafe workplace environment posing a substantial risk of emotional distress. As a result, the plaintiff was forced to resign, or as the law recognizes, she was constructively discharged.

The court held that the plaintiff stated a viable cause of action for wrongful discharge and negligence in violation of the public policy set forth in 31-49.

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