Labor & Employment Law Daily UPS package sorter who soiled himself after bathroom break denied can bring emotional distress claim
Thursday, June 25, 2020

UPS package sorter who soiled himself after bathroom break denied can bring emotional distress claim

By Ronald Miller, J.D.

The claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress was defined by Texas law. It did not require interpretation of a collective bargaining agreement, and so was not preempted.

A UPS employee whose manager refused to let him use the restroom until after he defecated on himself may pursue his claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. Because the terms of an operative collective bargaining agreement did not cover employee restroom access, LMRA, Section 301, did not preempt his state-law tort claim, a federal district court in Texas held. On the other hand, UPS was granted its motion to dismiss the employee’s claims for false imprisonment, invasion of privacy, and negligent supervision (the latter of which was covered by the union contract) (Amin v. United Parcel Service, Inc., June 18, 2020, Starr, B.).

Bathroom break denied. The employee worked as a package sorter for UPS and was a union member. During his shift, he needed to use the restroom. He told his supervisor that he did not feel well and desperately needed to go to the restroom, which the supervisor permitted. But on his way to the restroom, he was stopped by a division manager. The employee explained that he needed to use the restroom and that he could not wait. However, the manager told him he could not go to the restroom and directed him to return to his job.

Despite the employee’s pleas, the manager continued to deny his request and threatened him with immediate termination if he attempted to use the restroom. The manager allegedly followed the employee back to his workstation and stood behind him as he worked, urging him to move faster. The employee defecated in his pants. Still, the manager required him to work for another 20 minutes until the task was completed.

The employee reported the incident to a union shop steward. After he left work, he called OSHA to report what happened. He also contacted human resources and was told that an investigation would be opened. The next day, he was told that UPS intended to discharge him for failure to follow management instructions. That same day, he filed a grievance through the union. UPS terminated him for a separate incident, and his grievance was settled under terms that did not compensate him.

Tort claims. The employee sued UPS for (1) false imprisonment; (2) invasion of privacy; (3) intentional intention of emotional distress (IIED); and (4) negligent supervision. The employer moved to dismiss. It argued that the claims were preempted by Section 301 of the LMRA because they require interpretation of a collective bargaining agreement. UPS also contended that he failed to state a claim for false imprisonment, invasion of privacy, or negligent supervision.

Preemption. The employee argued that intentional tort claims cannot be preempted by Section 301 because, under Texas law, Zachry Construction Corp. v. Port of Houston Authority of Harris County, a contractual provision “exempting a party from tort liability for harm caused intentionally or recklessly is unenforceable on grounds of public policy.” UPS argued that the CBA provides an alternative forum for seeking remedial measures to resolve the dispute, and that his claims required interpreting the CBA to determine whether the manager was working within the scope of his employment at the time of the incident, such that UPS could be liable for his actions.

However, the court found that the CBA did not address whether the manager was acting within the scope of his employment, so it rejected this global preemption argument. It thus considered each of the employee’s claims to determine whether they were specifically preempted by the federal labor law.

Emotional distress. The employee asserted that UPS intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon him when the manager refused to let him use the restroom and then made him continue to work after he defecated on himself. UPS argued that determining whether this conduct was sufficiently “extreme and outrageous” required interpretation of standards defined by the CBA; thus, his IIED claim was preempted. However, the Texas Supreme Court has provided a workable definition: conduct “so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.” In contrast, the CBA contained no provision regarding employee restroom access. Thus, Section 301 did not preempt the employee’s IIED claim.

False imprisonment. The false imprisonment claim was premised on the manager’s conduct in: (1) refusing to allow him access to the restroom; (2) confining him to his workstation; and (3) requiring him to remain at his workstation after the manager knew that the employee defecated on himself. Under Texas law, preventing someone from entering a particular place does not constitute false imprisonment. “When an employer supervises its employees, it necessarily temporarily restricts the employees’ freedom to move from place to place or in the direction they wish to go,” the court observed. Moreover, the employer has the right, subject to certain limited exceptions, to instruct its employees regarding the tasks they are to perform during work hours. Thus, the employee failed to state a claim under Texas law.

Invasion of privacy. The employee asserted that the employer intruded on his privacy by requiring him to continue working, under threat of termination, until he defecated on himself, and by requiring him to continue working 20 minutes thereafter. He alleged two theories of invasion of privacy: (1) unreasonable publicity given to private information about a person; and (2) unreasonable intrusion upon the seclusion or private affairs of another.

However, with regard to the first theory, the “publication” element of such a claim under Texas law requires communication to more than a small group, as alleged here. Because he failed to meet the publicity requirement, his invasion of privacy claim under the theory of unreasonable publicity failed. His intentional intrusion of seclusion theory failed as well under Texas law. His allegations did not support a claim for unreasonable intrusion because one party interfered with another’s efforts to seek seclusion.

Negligent supervision. Finally, the employee argued that UPS was aware that the manager routinely denied employees access to the restroom and failed to ensure that he did not abusively deny such access. This allegation was preempted, as the CBA provides resolution procedures for grievances involving the relationship between managers and employees. Thus, resolution of the negligent supervision claim required analysis of the CBA, regardless of whether the manager was himself a member of the union.

Accordingly, the court denied the employer’s motion to dismiss with respect to the employee’s IIED claim; but granted the motion to dismiss his invasion of privacy, false imprisonment, and negligent supervision claims.

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