Guide to Laws and Protections Related to Emotional Distress in the U.S.

Laws related to emotional distress provide legal remedies for individuals who have suffered emotionally because of the actions of others. That said, it is often difficult to prove the full consequences of mental health issues, and thus it can be challenging to successfully make these legal claims.

These laws vary by state, so be sure to check with a lawyer in your state for help with emotional distress issues. This area generally falls under personal injury law. That said, it may also relate to employment law, or criminal law, as discussed below.

How does the law define emotional distress?

Emotional distress, also known as mental anguish or psychological injury, refers to the suffering experienced as a result of trauma, harassment, discrimination, or other adverse events.

What are the laws on emotional distress?

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED): An individual may bring a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress when someone’s extreme and outrageous conduct causes severe mental anguish. To succeed in an IIED claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant’s actions were intentional, extreme, and directly led to their suffering.

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (NIED): NIED claims arise when individuals suffer emotional harm due to another party’s negligent actions. Unlike IIED, NIED does not require proof of intentional or outrageous conduct but necessitates a showing of negligence and a close relationship between the parties involved.

What if someone at work caused my emotional distress?

While you may be able to bring a claim for IIED or NIED against someone in your workplace who caused you mental pain and suffering, you may also be able to use employment laws to get compensation. While it is not generally illegal to be a jerk in the workplace, if you experience sexual harassment or discrimination, or retaliation for exercising your employment rights, you may be able to bring a claim for these specific offenses.

Is domestic emotional abuse or neglect illegal?

Domestic violence laws: Most states have laws against domestic violence, which often encompass emotional abuse alongside physical abuse. These laws typically criminalize behaviors intended to control, intimidate, or subjugate a partner. Threats, gaslighting, manipulation, and isolation can all fall under this umbrella.

Child neglect laws: All states have laws against child neglect. This applies when a parent or caregiver fails to provide for a child’s basic needs, including food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and supervision. In domestic situations, one parent neglecting a child due to the other parent’s actions or influence could be a legal concern.

Elder abuse/ dependent adult neglect: Many jurisdictions have laws protecting dependent adults from neglect by caregivers. This can be relevant in domestic situations where one partner neglects the other, especially if the neglected partner is elderly or disabled.

Is emotional harassment or stalking illegal?

Harassment and stalking can cause significant emotional distress, and these actions may be considered crimes.

Why is it difficult to bring claims or criminal charges for emotional distress?

Subjectivity: Assessing and quantifying emotional distress can be inherently subjective, making it difficult to determine appropriate legal remedies and damages.

Causation: Establishing a causal link between the defendant’s actions and the plaintiff’s emotional distress can be complex, particularly in cases where multiple factors contribute to the harm suffered.

How to prove a claim of emotional distress?

Evidence that is helpful for a claim of emotional distress includes the following:

  • Diagnosis of psychological disorder: Documentation from therapists or psychiatrists diagnosing emotional distress is strong evidence. This includes treatment plans, therapy notes, and bills associated with the treatment of your emotional distress.
  • Diagnosis and medical records of physical ailment: Evidence of physical manifestation of emotional distress alongside emotional suffering can be helpful to win a claim of emotional distress. In fact, some states require this.
  • Witness testimony: Statements from friends, family, or colleagues who have observed changes in your behavior, mood, and overall well-being due to the emotional distress can be very impactful.
  • Connection to defendant’s actions: You’ll need to establish a clear connection between the defendant’s actions (their behavior that caused you harm) and your emotional suffering. This can involve evidence related to the situation that caused the distress, like emails, recordings, or police reports.
  • Severity of distress: The severity of your emotional distress will be considered by the court. Evidence like diagnoses of depression, anxiety, or PTSD can help demonstrate the seriousness of your condition.
  • Impact on daily life: Document any changes in your daily life caused by the emotional distress. This can include missed workdays, changes in sleep patterns, difficulty maintaining relationships, or social withdrawal.

Further Resources

For infliction of emotional distress claims, reach out to a personal injury lawyer. See our Guide to Getting Legal Help.

If you are a victim of harassment at work, you can file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or talk to a lawyer about it.

If you are a victim of stalking or cyberstalking, you can report it to the Department of Justice.

For domestic abuse or neglect, harassment, or stalking, you would most likely want to speak to law enforcement, such as the local police department, or call 911 for emergencies.

See our guide What are My Rights if I am Injured?

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