N.H. Supreme Court Applies Workers Comp Exclusive Remedy

October 23, 2006

The exclusive remedy provision of New Hampshire’s workers’ compensation law barred a suit by an employee for negligent supervision because it was not a claim for constructive discharge, the state Supreme Court ruled recently.

However, the same plaintiff was permitted to sue for wrongful termination.

In LaCasse v. Spaulding Youth Center, the plaintiff resigned from her job as assistant food service director at a home for emotionally-impaired kids after a dispute with some co-workers over their time sheets. In the ensuing weeks, she endured abusive behavior from her superior, who happened to be the mother of the workers with whom she had her dispute and with whom the plaintiff had had excellent relations up until then. She reported her supervisor yelled her at in front of others, ignored her for assignments, and gave her a poor performance appraisal, which her superior then shared with others.

The plaintiff suffered physical symptoms attributable to stress and resigned. While her employer asked her to return and vowed to investigate her situation, she was advised by her doctor not to return to work. She sued for negligent supervision and wrongful discharge.

The workers compensation statute lifts the workers’ compensation bar from an action to “recover damages for wrongful termination of, or constructive discharge from, employment,” should the former employee elect to pursue such a claim instead of a workers’ compensation claim, the court noted.

The trial court had granted summary judgment on the negligent supervision claim, finding it to be barred by the workers’ compensation statute. The Supreme Court agreed that the exclusive remedy of the workers’ compensation statute barred the negligent supervision claim.

The trial court also granted summary judgment on the wrongful discharge claim, finding that the incidents of mistreatment alleged by the plaintiff “do not rise to the level of constructive discharge.” The lower court concluded that “[w]hile the working conditions faced by [the plaintiff] were not ideal, being ignored by one’s supervisor and being yelled at three times in two weeks does not rise to the level of creating an intolerable working condition that would force a reasonable person in the same position to resign.”

Here the Supreme Court took a different view, holding that summary judgment should not have been granted. The plaintiff had the right to sue for wrongful discharge because it could not be said that no reasonable person would feel compelled to resign under the conditions in this case, the Supreme Court found.

The high court said the trial court overlooked the supervisor’s history of mistreating others and her threat to “make it miserable enough for [an employee] to quit.”

“A reasonable jury might find that a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position would conclude that Couto [the supervisor] was trying to drive her out, and that the relatively short period of mistreatment was only the beginning of a campaign of abuse that would continue until she quit,” wrote the high court. “A jury could further find that a reasonable person would resign at that point rather than endure the continued mistreatment. “

Thus, the plaintiff’s claim for wrongful discharge is not barred. The plaintiff’s separate claim for negligent supervision, however, is not a claim for constructive discharge and it is barred.

The Supreme Court decision was handed down on Oct. 13

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